The Double-Edged Sword of ‘Authenticity’

An increasing number of consumers are calling out the tactics some firms use to portray themselves as purpose driven, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman. 

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Authenticity–it’s a buzzword these days. Particularly in leadership and business.

Put simply, authenticity translates to being true to one's own values, spirit, and personality. In leaders, it looks like self-awareness, transparency, integrity, empathy, and ethics. In organizations, it’s essentially the same: authenticity can be measured by looking at how true a company is to their purpose and mission, regardless of pressure to act otherwise.

In this era of climate change, war, disease, and increasing concern for human welfare, authenticity is a growing form of influence. Research findings indicate that Gen Z members are twice as likely as millennials, and three times as likely as Gen X members, to see brands as having the power to make the world a better place. Meanwhile, 62% of consumers of all ages say that when they are considering a purchase, a brand’s values play an important role in their decision, and 40% report that they research the values and practices of the companies whose products they buy.

The push for brands to be honest, ethical, and values driven has prompted many consumers to question which companies they are supporting and how those companies go about promoting themselves. One example is the recent “de-influencing” trend on TikTok, where a growing number of content creators have begun giving candid reviews of products traditionally advertised through paid partnerships. The trend seeks to interrupt the $16.4-billion-dollar influencer-marketing industry, one replete with social-media influencers who are willing, in order to make more money, to push products they may not even use. De-influencers are not only encouraging consumers to scale back on spending, but also prompting them to question the integrity of how products are marketed to them and what those methods say about the companies and individuals they follow.

“It’s in direct response to the overwhelming number of influencer-promoted products,” Brendan Gahan, a partner and chief social officer at ad agency Mekanism, told the Washington Post. “The hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit has become synonymous with TikTok because of its overwhelming ability to push new products and drive sales.”

The de-influencing trend is connected to what many researchers cite as a decline in trust among consumers. Since 2015, the Gustavson Brand Trust Index (GBTI), the only study of its kind conducted by an academic institution, has looked at consumer trust across Canada. The purpose of the GBTI is to highlight the need for businesses to make a positive contribution to their communities. Every year, its findings reveal a growing concern on the part of consumers about whether businesses support causes they care about, and whether those businesses take care of their employees.

According to the 2022 report, trust in business continues to erode, particularly in big tech. Even if consumers are still using platforms like TikTok and Amazon, they are simultaneously questioning whether or not these companies really have their best interests at heart.

“These global brands have the advantage of ubiquity, and it’s hard for consumers to choose not to use them,” explained Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria in Canada. He said that the research “presents an urgent challenge as well as a critical opportunity for brands to engage more effectively with their consumers.”

The de-influencing trend on TikTok shows that consumers are discovering new ways to use technology to their advantage. The trend not only furthers the conversation around values and purpose, but also puts the power of the platform back into the hands of its unpaid users, sending a powerful message about prioritizing authenticity over money, and not the other way around.

Heidi Kaluza, a Seattle-based sustainable fashion influencer with nearly 50,000 TikTok followers, told the Post, “I think this is the beginning of something.” According to her, understanding the importance of authenticity and conscious consumerism isn’t just a trend—it’s the new way forward. Even if influencers are being paid for promoting products, de-influencing has them thinking more deeply about how influencing works and how to be more purposeful in monetizing their audience.

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.