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Branding within the Zones of Authenticity

3 minute read

The team at BrandOps monitors over 1,000 brands daily. With all of this data, we've seen some branding magic - and some disasters. In sorting through this, we landed on one fundamental truth: organizations need to adapt their messaging relative to the ebb and flow of their brand health.

The 'Zones of Authenticity' is a situational assessment model used to determine if a brand is holding back too much, being too aggressive - or is managing to push just hard enough. The model is meant to be used along with other tools like a messaging ladder or a positioning matrix. Although the goal is simple (keep your messaging in the Aspirational Arena), reality often delivers unwelcome surprises. The Zones are an easy way to think about your current position, and help you plan a path forward.

The Penalty Box

Most brands face a crisis at some point in their journey. The public relations team might be keenly aware of the crisis - but other communication teams continue to do outreach as if it was business as usual. This doesn't work in our always-connected society. Customers know about the problems and expect the brand to either communicate the remedy - or to be relatively humble while they're working on a fix.

Tip: If you're in the penalty box - selectively 

filter all outbound communications (social, email marketing, podcasts, etc.) until you're out of trouble. Otherwise, expect aggravated customers to punish you in social posts, reviews and commentary - further tainting your brand.

Pit of Brooding

One step beyond the Penalty Box is the Pit of Brooding. Here, organizations get overly quiet - the messaging slows down and loses the upbeat flair. Sometimes the brand is facing headwinds from the competition - perhaps they missed a revenue target, or faced similar challenges. Regardless, their demeanor is no longer attractive to the outside world.

Tip: Organizations get in a rut - it's okay - but snap out of it!!! If the cadence of your outreach has slowed down, or the tone is dragging, you've got a problem. The easiest way out is to move to a regular outreach pace with a Fact City strategy.

Fact City

Organizations that live in Fact City are frequently playing defense with their brand. The communications tend to be a bit boring with the marketing messages focused on product facts, or recent accomplishments. This is a safe place to hang out while you figure out your next strategic move. Fact City isn't bad - it's just safe. Use it to tell a factual story at a regular messaging pace.

Tip: Fact City exists as a temporary resting place for organizations who've lost their way. If your brand ladder stops at 'just the facts', you'll fail to attract and retain the best customers. You have to get your mojo back and start your move to the Aspirational Arena.

Aspirational Arena

The Aspirational Arena is where you want to be! Here, your message projects the truth about your offerings but adds a healthy dose of zest. The messaging is true to your brand identity but pushes the limit on your intended brand perceptions. For example, if the intended brand perception is "highly secure", amplify the message, discuss the immediate benefits, and paint a picture of how it helps customers as a positive disruptive force.

Tip: The goal is to live in the Aspirational Arena - but that's not always possible. When you find yourself in another zone, take the time to map out how you'll work your way back to the Arena. Once you're in the Arena, review the outbound communications and customer feedback to understand if you're sliding back to Fact City, or too far forward into the Slimy Swamp.

The Slimy Swamp

We've all seen the brands that brag too much - or just straight out lie about their offerings. Competitors know. Journalists know. Customers know. It seems, the last one to know is the marketing department that is running the show! Not to worry - if you've entered the Slimy Swamp, you'll see: 1. High levels of marketing activity, 2. Revenue that doesn't reflect the activity, and 3. Customer engagement levels (and sentiment) go down. You got out ahead of your skis. Take a breath - it's going to be okay.

Tip: If you find yourself in the Slimy Swamp, it's probably time to drop all the way back to Fact City. Let customers know who you really are - and what your product really is. Only after they start believing you again, can you make your way back to the Aspirational Arena.

The Zones of Authenticity is a simple model used to assess your situation and identify the appropriate messaging levels and cadence. We encourage you to use it as part of your regular brand health review process!

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