Episode #38: The Relentless Quest for Brand Authenticity, with Katie Martell

The search for authenticity drives many of our decisions, including our brand choices. We’re all hoping for those elusive, authentic experiences. In Part 2 of my discussion with Katie Martell we dive deep into performative brand allyship, the dangerous illusion of progress, and the unexpected benefits of an alien invasion. We finish up with a look at how brands can best demonstrate true authenticity. Spoiler alert: it’s more than feel-good ads and woke-washed social media posts.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad 
Welcome to the CXM Experience. This is part two of our conversation with Katie Martell. We’re having a really, really interesting conversation on brand authenticity, and how that contributes to experience in the 21st century. So let’s go back to the conversation with Katie. And as usual, I am Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And thanks for listening.

Grad 
So, are you familiar with the fearless girl statue that’s down on Wall Street?

Katie Martell 
More than I want to be. And I’ll tell you why. But tell me your take on it first.

Grad 
Well, I’m just reporting the news here. So she was put up by a company called State Street Global Advisors, which is an asset management company. And that was in 2017. So at this point, you had been married a year. So I don’t know if you’re still stoned on the couch or not. We’ll get a little peek into the first year of your marriage in a second, I guess. But there’s been… right now she’s got the RBG collar on. So that’s kind of cool. But there’s been I think, good and bad things said about it. I think there’s some “pandermonium” criticism of it. But then there’s also like, if it encourages one person to think differently, then that’s a good thing, too. So what’s your take on it?

Katie Martell 
I’m glad that you asked this. I think what we’re getting into is the question of what is the danger of stuff like this? Pandering, or what I call performative brand allyship. So State Street Global advisor actually launched this…

Grad 
Whoa… performative brand allyship? You are like… what is going on here?

Katie Martell 
You just wait. I’m going to drop some words…

Grad 
Performative brand allyship? That is like gold. Do you have your own thesaurus or something? That is awesome.

Katie Martell 
I didn’t come up with that. But I have been working on a book and a documentary about this. And so I am obsessed with this topic. Don’t get me started. State Street Global Advisors launched that campaign. And I actually know the people behind it. I booked them to speak at an event. It was fantastic. And I got to see behind the scenes, how it came to life. It was a huge success story for the brand. International headlines. I mean, the earned media on this thing was like money, right? They launched it in March, and March is a really important month. It’s actually a very important day, March 6, International Women’s Day.

Grad 
Yeah,

Katie Martell 
Every major brand launches what’s called “femvertising.” Right? Feminist advertising on this day. You’ll see it in March… mark, your calendars, look for it. They launched this thing. And it was about celebrating the power of women and leadership. And it represented a new fund that they were launching. And again, it went viral, like this was absolutely amazing campaign. Everyone talked about it. And then, of course, you look a little further… now this is not State Street at large. This was State Street Global Advisors. So the company State Street, which is much broader, there’s a $5 million settlement to settle allegations that female and black executives are paid less than their white male counterparts. And they have a leadership team that is majority male, all white. I don’t know if there’s a very clear black and white way to say, this is right, and this is wrong.

And I think this is where that nuance comes in that you mentioned and why I’m so fascinated by this. You could look at this and say oh, that’s pandering, that’s wrong. But as a marketer, we look at this and go, it worked. Is it wrong that people still pose in front of the fearless girl with like their pussy hat? And is it really a bad thing for the brand? Yeah, they may have done things that seem unethical, but is marketing meant to be ethical? And I think there’s a lot of ways to look at this. And so I’ve been looking at it pretty much since 2016, since 2017. I do think there are dangers, I do think there are real risks to brands that performatively become allies rather than like a Patagonia living the values throughout the business. There’s obviously risks to the brand. You were touching on this right? You could get called out you know as well as I do, we’re living in an age of canceled culture. And anything that you do is going to be under a microscope. It will be looked at and compared against your action. Your words are going to be compared against the way you live them. But I also think it doesn’t do a lot for the women’s rights movement. Something that is actively being fought for day in and day out. It actually I think creates a very dangerous illusion of progress. It makes the world seem far more equitable than it really is. And it prevents us from addressing the issue head on because looking at an ad like that, or a campaign like fearless girl… your instinct, you do what marketing tells you. It’s to give you this perception that a company like State Street is on the front lines of the fight against women’s rights. Where if you open and look behind the curtain, it’s not exactly the truth. So I could go all day about the risks. But I’d love to get your take on that. What are the risks?

Grad 
I want to talk about authenticity in a second. Because I think that’s where you’re heading with all this stuff. And I want to relate authenticity to experience because I think they’re connected ideas. But I got a couple of asides, because you’re just tweaking me here, because I got the same itch I need to scratch. One of my favorite visuals from the protest that erupted around the time of Donald Trump’s election. It was a an older woman standing in the street. She was probably not super old, but like in mid 60s, that kind of thing. And she’s holding a sign — you may have seen this picture — she’s holding a sign. The sign says, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” And that’s a little bit of like, how long is this gonna take? This is not exactly something we just kind of came up with yesterday. And I do think that there’s a major issue there. Because we’re now multi generational on this. Right? And so I think that there’s this authenticity that people are hungry for. And again, politics aside, I do think something that Donald Trump really leveraged and really was able to make something out of, is this idea of just saying what he wanted to say. You know, just being authentic. I mean, a lot of his supporters and a lot of the people who support him, love the idea that he’s not a politician. That when he would say things that were impolitic, instead of being angry about it, like outraged, I can’t believe you just said that, which, you know, many people in country would say. A lot of his supporters are like, that’s just him being real. That’s just him talking. That’s not politics. That’s not filtering it through advisors and stuff. And I think there is something that has happened in our society where we’re so afraid to say things, that there’s a general sense of inauthenticity overall. And I think where that starts to impact people is that when I’m working with a brand, or if I’m going to do something, I want to feel like I’ve got an authentic experience. I want to be connected to humans in a real way. Because that’s what drives that experience.

I spent a lot of time in theater. And I think one of the things that keeps theater alive and vibrant, when it comes back, it’ll be great. It’s gonna be amazing when it comes back. But it’s alive and vibrant, is that there’s a there’s an authenticity on the stage, because that’s the actual performance. It’s not edited. It’s not great camera angles. It’s not CGI. In fact, I think the more CGI there is… movies are great, and they’re spectacular. But you know, theater has gotten just as big at the same pace because people crave authenticity. So a lot of what you’re saying, I think is How do you stay authentic? And how do you talk in a way that’s real? I think people respond to that, because they want to feel you’re talking to a real person.

Katie Martell 
Right, right. And I think we could go a few angles… directions from that. But the way I want to go is to tie this back to CX and customer experience. There is a through line. And yes, it’s about authenticity. But unfortunately, authenticity has been become one of those buzzwords. It’s just become one of those things that you throw around, and it’s become kind of meaningless. So I like to think of brands, I like to think of allyship. Again, when you think about how companies actually support some of these social movements. As a promise, right? You make a promise as a brand to live up to a number of expectations. And if you’re a customer dealing with that brand, those expectations are mired in service and in responsiveness and relevance and all the tenants that you and I have talked about on previous stuff around customer experience, right? Living up to that promise is how you demonstrate authenticity. Simply doing what you say you’re going to do. And being someone who lives up to what they say. That’s trust. That’s authentic action. It’s the same thing with this woke washed performative allyship thing. When you get out there and you say to the world… you might have a cohort of your employees marching in a pride parade, wearing your T shirts. Target, Apple, all of them. They’re like 400, by the way, last year, two years ago, in the latest Pride Parade. 400 different groups. You’re making a promise by doing that. You’re basically saying to the world and these social movements that are living and breathing and happening right now, you’re making a promise that A) you understand those movements, B) you’re willing to do the things necessary to help those movements. To actually support the fight for women’s rights, to actually support the Black Lives Matter movement. Brand is a promise. You live up to it in your customer experience or you fail. And you live up to it, or fail, when you look at the actions of a business against some of these larger irrelevance almost looking social movements.

And I think that when you can align actions and words, that’s where you get accountability. That’s where you get authenticity. That’s where you see great brands starting to build what I believe will be the next era of long term brand. Companies that live up to these values and stand for something far more than the products they sell. Patagonia is going to be around for a long time, because they saw the writing on the wall in terms of the sustainability trend, as it were, now becoming front and center. They’re going to be around forever. Because they know that this is one of those movements that isn’t going away. Feminism is not going away. So we solve the problem, that old lady can put her sign down. It’s one of those movements that you either live up to it or not. You either demonstrate that you understand what women in your organization need: equal pay, transparency, family leave, all the all the things that go into supporting women, or not. And I do think that’s where it’s black and white. Brands like to get into this, you know, shades of gray, where Oh, we have a platform. Look at what happened in June, right? Did you spend any time on Twitter, in June this year? If you did, you’d see a sea of these black squares with white text, basically saying we’re here for Black Lives Matter. And I love all of the people on Twitter that ended up calling out brands for just straight up living the opposite. So if you want to say that you’re with Black Lives Matter, show us the receipts. Where are you investing internally to improve representation, to improve diversity? And there’s a million ways that companies can do that. But what I don’t think is enough, is to say, we have a platform. So it’s enough for us to get people thinking about this cause differently. Companies have to recognize they’re part of the fabric of society. They’re made up of individuals, they’re made up of resources. And all of these things can be used to help these movements in far more impactful ways than a Superbowl ad, or a tweet in the month of June. And I think this is going to be what we start to see consumers expect and employees, by the way, expect from their employers. If you’re getting caught off guard, you’re already behind in this area.

Grad 
Yeah, yeah. I totally hear you. It’s challenging too, though. I mean, this issue of diversity is a somewhat North American-centric, and potentially Western-centric point of view. I don’t know if you’ve spent a lot of time in Asia. But I was at a very large company, spent a couple days at a very large company in South Korea. Great company, fantastic company, and one of the world’s great companies. Not a lot of diversity in the lunchroom. Because they’re all South Koreans. And I think that’s… which is fine. I mean, I was the diversity in the room. And it was an interesting, slightly eye opening experience for me, which is…Oh, interesting, because like in South Korea most people are Korean. And so they’re not the melting pot or Mosaic, depending on what country you come from. Canada is a mosaic, the US as a melting pot. But they’re not that sort of mixture you tend to see elsewhere. And so how do they do that? Right? So they don’t want to say we just sell TVs to South Koreans, obviously, because they’re a global company. Their management team is not diverse — quotation marks — depending on your perspective, right? But they certainly could still support the principles of it. They can still support the principles of thinking of humanity as a single global village, and thinking of all people as being equal. You know, feminism is a philosophy of equality. I think you can support those things and not necessarily not be whatever color we choose is not right this week. Right?

Katie Martell 
Certainly.

Grad 
That’s where I think some of this stuff is super tricky. I think you have to be sort of thoughtful. I think there’s this danger, that we also force everyone to do false diversity. And then that’s not going to be good for anyone either. And I think it’s gonna be a while, we probably have another 1,000 years, I would guess, before we get mixed up enough that we sort of stop judging it. But to a certain extent, I think that it would really be nice if we lived in a time when we were humans, not necessarily this kind of human or that kind of human. Right? And I’ve always had a long standing belief that what we really need is a good old fashioned “Independence Day” style alien invasion. We are all going to look equally tasty to the aliens. We’re going to taste the same, we’re all going to look the same. We’ll be equally delicious and that would really  get us on the same page. I’ve got a dog. I’ve got this wonderful terrier labrador mix dog. And I spend a lot of time with other dogs. She’s constantly talking to other dogs and we’re bumping into all these dogs all over the place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another dog that looks like her. But I don’t think I’ve seen another dog that looks like another dog. Like they all look different. But they don’t care.

Katie Martell 
Wouldn’t that be lovely? I love that idea.

Grad 
Like our how different are we? Like, dogs get along and cats get along? Why are humans all so obsessed with what color our skin is, or our hair is, and stuff like that.

Katie Martell 
Like everything else? It’s about power. I love that you had the experience in South Korea of being the token in the room, you know? Oh, I’m the only one in this room that looks like me, right? That’s a very strange experience. And I do think that it’s an experience that you really don’t understand until you’ve lived it in a sense. I’ll tell you from my perspective, I do think that aliens would love all of us equally in terms of how we taste because yeah, that’s what we’re about.

Grad 
Some of us probably taste better than others. Like vegetarians are definitely better.

Katie Martell 
I was gonna say the couch sitters. We’re like Kobe beef right now in terms of lockdown habits But don’t tell my Peloton, or my wife who’s a personal trainer.

Grad 
You’re married to a personal trainer? That is super intimidating.

Katie Martell 
You would think I would look better. Honestly. And she’s a boxer too, which is terrifying. She absolutely could beat me up in a fight. But actually there’s a really interesting way of looking at this issue. You gotta almost look at it from the perspective of somebody who isn’t in a position of power. If you are someone like myself, who’s part of the gay community, LGBTQ community, you’ve got to remind yourself of the reality of being part of this community. If I was transgender, for example, or I was transitioning, I’d be one of 80% of people in that community, who experienced harassment or mistreatment. Being misgendered, awkward questions. Most people in this community reports some kind of employment discrimination. It’s just an interesting reality that is lived by people of any minority, that these movements are working really hard to fight against. But it is about systemic power. And I know that word is like, okay, roll your eyes. What does that mean? Look, if you’re a woman, you’re looking around the world right now. And you’re looking at the fact that only 22% of C-suite executives in the US are women. It’s like this very strange feeling of being the only person in a room, is experienced by so many. There are also issues like one in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. That, to me is something that we, as a country here in the US, yes, specifically, should be able to address and should be able to fix. And look at all the innovation we’re able to do, why can’t we fix these issues? And it’s because these issues are not being taken seriously. They’re either given lip service to, like hear my feminist ad without any paid leave program. Or they’re just considered not a problem, because the people in power don’t live them.

Katie Martell 
And I don’t mean to call out anyone who is white and male, you’re certainly not trying to make anyone feel like a victim. What I think these movements, and what I’m trying to do in this documentary, in this book that I’m writing, is just elevate the perspective that look, organizations of any type — for profit, nonprofit, large, startups — have a platform. We have an ability to create change in the world. That’s what marketers do. That’s what great products do we disrupt things, we can make a lot of great change, right, we can make a lot of decisions that are both profitable, and help move some of these issues forward that I can’t believe still exist. For example, I still can’t believe that one in three women under the age of 34 are sexually harassed at work. One in three, like one in three. These are the issues that are that are being dealt with, and I think are being smoothed over if it’s hard for us to admit that these problems still exist. And I just think that if you’re ever in a position where you feel like, what’s the problem? You’ve got to look a little harder. Because the problem exists. Inequality, racism, it all exists in organizations. Not a matter of if, but where. And so for me 2020… I like this reset of a new decade. I like the idea that a business can do well, by doing good. I’m really encouraged by the B Corps and the world of business moving into the space of social change. I do believe it’s a powerful force for good. As eyes wide open as I am that look, we’re here to make money. But we can do both.

Grad 
Well, one of my hobby horses as well is I love talking about history and how it gives us guidance to the future. And this canceled culture is not that new to humanity. If you ever go to the British Museum, which is one of my favorite museums in the world… have you been to the British Museum?

Katie Martell 
I have I love it there.

Grad 
Okay, so what’s so cool about it, as I go room to room there, it’s almost like the Brits are like, and then we took over this country, and took all their stuff. And we took this country and took all this stuff, and then we went to this other country… they have some really cool stuff. It’s right there over in that cabinet. So awesome. And we’re not giving any of it back. So now we’ve insulted, Britain. That’s great. Anyway, so. But you go into the Egyptian gallery, which is quite extraordinary. Many, if not almost all, the statues don’t have faces. And they in many cases, they’re quite pristine, but they’re missing their faces. And these are, in some cases, granite statues that will last for a long time. And do you know why they don’t have faces?

Katie Martell 
I don’t actually.

Grad 
Well, you can use this in your documentary if you want. So what used to happen is, when a ruler… a ruler was around for often a while. They would be around long enough to get a bunch of cool statues made of themselves with their likeness on it. Then that ruler would die. And a new ruler would come to power. And the new ruler would have the likeness, the face, chiseled off all the statues, and replaced with a plaster version of their likeness.

Katie Martell 
Oh my god, I love this.

Grad 
So the statue still looked like statues. They still had faces, but of the new ruler. But with the ravages of time, the replacement face, which was made out of a compound, weathered away or disappeared, and all that remained was the chiseled off front of the face. And there’s a little bit of chiseling going on all the time. And do we replace it with something more permanent or less permanent? Kind of interesting. And I think there’s an interesting analogy there.

Katie Martell 
I do love that. I do love this. I think the faces of movements is where my mind goes here, right? We have a history in this country of social movements that… you think of the gay rights movement and Harvey Milk, and you think of Black Lives Matter and MLK, and these women that have been part of the women’s rights movement. And in 2020, I mean, feminism is sponsored by Pepsi. Not really, but you know what I mean? It’s very strange. Brands want to be the face of these movements now, without doing any of the work that some people have lived and died for to actually uphold some of these movements. So I’m always going to come back to this topic of performative allyship and the dangers of it. But I love this idea that if somebody doesn’t represent the times, we can just scrape their face off and put our own up there. What? What a terrifying and… I love that metaphor. I really do.

Grad 
Okay, Katie, this is fantastic. Thank you so much. I’m going to sign out now. And we’ll see each other again soon. But this has been great. And I thank you so much for your time and energy today. It was awesome and very thought provoking. I really enjoyed it.

Katie Martell 
Thank you, Grad. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Grad 
All right. Well, thanks everybody. For the CXM Experience. This is Grad Conn and Katie Martell. And we’ll see you next time.