Authenticity is intangible. We know it when we see it, but it’s difficult to define.
Dr. A. Lynn Matthews, assistant professor of marketing for the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University, set out to quantify that her research article “When and how frontline service employee authenticity influences purchase intentions,” published in the Journal of Business Research.
Matthews and her co-authors made quantitative measurements of the impact of having a service provider be authentic on purchase intentions from that service provider.
“We found that, as one would expect, authenticity of the provider is extremely important in influencing consumer choices of a service provider,” Matthews said.
While authenticity is intangible, Matthews says it “spans the totality of what it is – being consistently true to yourself and conforming to a good set of values — basically that you’re true to yourself, you’re a good person and doing good things.”
And, in business, authenticity can be achieved in various ways.
“It’s being intrinsically motivated – doing what you’re doing because you want to be, not because you’re being paid to do it.”
Matthews and her colleagues developed an experiment where they had people read about a hypothetical provider who was either highly authentic or inauthentic – and then measured people's perceptions about the provider's quality, trust and purchase intentions.
“The quality is constant. They’re both good providers and the service they provide is still good, but one person is an authentic individual and the other person is less authentic,” she said.
Matthews has always been fascinated by what she calls human branding or personal branding: “When you go to your local hairdresser or your financial planner or your doctor, you’re not buying from a brand. You’re buying from an individual. How can an individual market themselves?”
Personal branding is an important differentiator for small businesses.
“So much of marketing is what big companies do to expand their profit margins, but there really isn’t very much about how real people can market themselves well,” Matthews said. “Being authentic and true to themselves is a really important way they can provide this additional benefit to clients, and it’s something clients actually value for itself.
The paper presented three main takeaways for entrepreneurs and frontline service employees:
- First, they should recognize that personal authenticity is important to clients apart from the authenticity of the brand, and therefore frontline service employees should be encouraged to be authentic.
- Second, they should be aware that personal authenticity is more important if their brand does not already emphasize its own authenticity: it may therefore be a good marketing strategy to focus their brand's positioning on something other than authenticity, but then to emphasize their individual authenticity to their clients.
- Third, it is important for individuals in fields like medicine and the financial planning field, where it is relatively difficult to assess provider quality, to recognize that their personal authenticity is an especially important driver of consumer choice and is one that should be emphasized to help build consumer trust in their services.
Matthews feels that this kind of research is relevant to entrepreneurs, service providers, anybody who is client-facing.
“I want people to know that it’s important to base your business decisions on data and not just gut feelings, but on the other hand that it has to be carefully tailored to you and your own situation and your own business,” she said. “They should end up looking very different for different people who are different individuals and would display their honesty differently.”
Matthews wants to invite the greater Wichita community to partner with the Wichita State marketing department.
“We like being involved with the community. We are very pro-entrepreneurship, pro-small business. If anybody has questions or wants to partner in future research projects, they should let us know. We’re always open and inviting for research opportunities for the good of the Wichita community.”
Research like Matthews’ is part of WSU’s mission.
“We’re all about being innovative, but also that applied learning and being relevant to our local community. So we really want our research to not just being journals, but we really want to be able to help our local community.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic and businesses struggling, perhaps no time in recent history has this kind of research more relevant for small business.
“Especially in a time like this where everyone is losing business and trying to stay afloat, it’s a good time to take a look at the strategy of marketing, but also the tactics. How do I want to position myself and differentiate myself?” Matthews said. “This is probably a good time for small business owners to be thinking about that and thinking about if they’re being strategically minded, showing that they’ve differentiated themselves, positioned themselves, and that they’re offering the best combination of product offerings, including their authenticity to their clients.”