You’ve probably heard of the “uncanny valley”. It’s a problem faced by moviemakers and video game designers caused by the fact that, as humans, we’re unexpectedly good at detecting what is authentic and what is not in certain circumstances. In this case, it is spotting real humans, which means we get an unsettling feeling when we see computer-generated imagery that tries to portray people too realistically. But you may not know that brand communication has its own kind of uncanny valley.
The downside of brilliant design
In an age when the public, especially in Western countries, is constantly bombarded with advertising, we have become very good at spotting inauthenticity. This is a problem for designers and communicators because, as professionals, we are trained to deliver perfect-looking work. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes too perfect to be effective. Companies pour a lot of money into branding to connect with audiences but an overly slick result can have the opposite effect – it looks like advertising and it makes people switch off.
Decades of research have shown that brand authenticity can help companies get the upper hand over competitors.
Why authenticity matters
Decades of research have shown that brand authenticity can help companies get the upper hand over competitors. A systematic review of the evidence in the International Journal of Consumer Studies showed that brand authenticity “positively influences trust and loyalty”, “increases brand equity” and “adds value to the consumer experience”.
What is authenticity
We all know it when we see it. And the research cited in the IJCS review backs it up: “being real (‘genuineness’, ‘sincerity’ and ‘trustworthiness’) is an important driver of brand authenticity. Moreover, authentic brands are responsible, which means that they exude a sense of integrity.”
On social media, untrained people generally communicate in a sloppy, poorly designed way that nevertheless feels more authentic and credible. How can we as designers replicate this in a professional way?
“Fake it till you make it” is common advice for becoming more confident as an individual but it’s a terrible idea for brand communications. Audiences can smell bullshit. A better aphorism is “keep it real” – but that is easier said than done.
As Oscar Wilde wrote on The Importance of Being Earnest, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
The imperfect truth is often more beautiful than the perfect lie.
Real life has rough edges. People have flaws. As the great philosopher Rocky Balboa put it, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.” That’s not necessarily something to dwell on in brand communications but it’s definitely not something to ignore. Brand communications should acknowledge and reflect the full richness of reality, because the imperfect truth is often more beautiful than the perfect lie.
Being a parent, for example, is the best experience in life for many people. It’s also a hard, unforgiving process involving a steep learning curve, high expectations, a lot of mess, and not much sleep.
That’s why when we developed the creative strategy, brand narrative and brand design for Babybites, a clothing and accessories brand for newborns, we leaned into the chaos of parenting, rolling out a humorous brand narrative based on the stoicism of parents.
Find the honest emotion in good design and your audience will respond.
Be purposeful and playful
Keep your purpose as your compass as you go out to explore and have fun. As long as you are aligned with your values, everything is learning. When we developed a narrative and visual identity for the playful kids’ fashion brand Bobo Choses, this was one of the key concepts. Be sincere and considerate but be free to make mistakes.
Brand communications aren’t personal communications. Corporate visual identities aren’t created by untrained random social media users, no matter how authentic.
Playfulness can also be dramatic, as you can see in our work for Robata, an izakaya-style restaurant located in the iconic Herald & Weekly Times Newspaper building in central Melbourne. Inspired by the neon glow of Tokyo’s nightscapes, the interior experience is futuristic and cinematic with a dramatic lightbox installation that transports patrons to the streets of a Japanese super-city.
Find honesty in beauty and beauty in honesty
Brand communications aren’t personal communications. Corporate visual identities aren’t created by untrained random social media users, no matter how authentic. The uncanny valley has two sides, and opposite over-perfection is a mess no-one wants to look at.
When Beyoncé broke the internet with an Instagram photo to announce her pregnancy, there was nothing spontaneous about it. The highly stylized shot of the singer cradling her belly, set against a background of roses was staged with precision. But it felt real – it felt like an authentic expression of joy – and 11 million people agreed. Find the honest emotion in good design and your audience will respond.