During the breakout sessions I attended at The New York Times Small Business Summit on Monday, the successful entrepreneurs serving as panelists kept coming back to one key concept for attracting and retaining customers: authenticity.

Customers only want to be evangelists for brands they believe to be authentic, said Yes To Carrots Inc. co-founder Ido Leffler. And that craving for authenticity goes beyond brands to the people leading the companies.

“These days, a brand is really all about personality,” said Leffler, and revealing your personality — who you are — allows you to do so much more as a company founder.

Still, leaders can’t carry their companies’ characters and personalities into the world solely on their own, said HappyBaby founder and CEO Shazi Visram. “You need to have really great team members who can exude your message.” And if you have worthwhile information to share with customers, then it becomes less like marketing and more like you’re connecting with them, Visram added.

Connection is a requirement for getting good word-of-mouth from influencers whose enthusiasm and endorsement will bring in more customers than many advertisements. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to identify influencers simply by pestering the ones with the most followers on Twitter, but that can be a huge mistake, said Beth Harte of Harte Marketing & Communications.

“Influencers aren’t going to influence for you if they aren’t your customers and don’t have a connection with your brand,” Harte explained. You want to target the people who would naturally be interested in what you’re selling, even if they aren’t the ones with the most followers.

Customers’ craving for authenticity also has changed the way companies are establishing themselves, said Naked Pizza co-founder and chief brand architect Robbie Vitrano. “So much of what we do has to do with our sense of authenticity.”

The traditional model for advertising was about control, explained Vitrano. The marketing and story were developed from the top down, carefully designed and tailored, and largely detached from the product. “Today, people create the story along with the product and it’s more authentic,” he said — the storytelling is baked into the whole package.

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8 responses to “Live from #OPENNYT: Customers want to connect with brands, businesses and their leaders”

  1. Shellyp says:

    Your suggestions are exactly what we've done at Ducktrap River of Maine. Our beginnings as a trout farm and local smokehouse supplying restaurants on the coast of Maine 33 years ago has blossomed into a nationally known and respected seafood smoking company. The one thing we believe in is "telling the story" – it helps people feel connected to the products and our customers are very loyal to our brand.

  2. This actually is very similar to an article I just wrote about social media myths (attached). This new style of marketing harkens back to the cluetrain manifesto; customers don't want to be sold or talked to – they want to communicate, they want to hold a conversation. Only through this conversation and open sharing of information can authenticity be built – in my opinion.

  3. […] a business and sales blog posting by Brooke Howell she shared that customers want to connect with brands, their businesses and the leaders.  Funny I did not read customers want to […]

  4. Zeus says:

    Very true – I invite you to view a very complementary blog regarding the importance of having a brand persona in today's social media's environment : http://jrgrana.com/blog/?p=475

  5. There are some very good insights in this post. However, I think it would have been much stronger had your focused more on what do these business owners mean by authenticity. In their own words, how is that authenticity demonstrated or communicated to customers and prospects? Specific examples and quotes about what authenticity means would have helped the premise of this post.

  6. Hi Peter, I believe authenticity is about trying to be something your not and relaying this message to potential and/or existing clients. Establishing your authenticity is often found in actions that speak louder than words. As a small business, I've learned to be proud of our small business rather than trying to compete with the bigger companies. I find our customers are long-term, loyal partners because we are down to earth and go the extra "personal" mile. We don't have the money for a "sales person." We rely on a bit of marketing that focuses on bringing the conversation to a level that is comfortable and unassuming. It's not about me, it's about us.

  7. Hi Jacquie, Thanks for sharing your thoughts, which paints a better picture of what authenticity means. That's the type of detail that was missing from the above post. However, if I interviewed one of your customers, I'm sure they could provide even more detail about how your company demonstrates its authenticity. I think that is what the co-founder of Naked Pizza was communicating, which may be the best way to market any company.