THE BLOG

You Want Authenticity? Check the Toilet

02/27/2015 05:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

At a recent speaking engagement, I was exploring approaches to building authentic brands. My audience, a group of raucous CEO's jonesing for a quick hit of inspiration, weren't being shy about sharing their opinions.

Finally, one CEO at the back of the room piped up "You want to see if a brand is authentic? Check the office toilet!" You could've heard a pin drop.

Pardon?

She went on to explain how most CEO's spend months and mountains of money crafting the essence of their brand, usually with a crack team of yes-men. The result is, in most cases, about as authentic as a motivational poster. To see if the brand really meant all the feel-good people-power stuff it proclaimed, she believed you needed to check the staff toilets.

We went around the room. None of the CEOs were particularly proud of their toilets. (One said the most distinguishing feature of his toilet was mountains of paper towels -- he got it on sale!) Yet all of them professed to having created truly authentic brands. Sheepishness ensued.

Authenticity has become as overused a term as storytelling, and meaningful conversation before that. For most brand stewards, it means nothing more than shooting 'reality tv' style commercials.

My toilet story is a simple illustration of what authenticity should mean. Digging deep to discover what you believe in, then living it. Really walking the talk, instead of pontificating. Not putting on a pretty public face, then pulling out the scowl when you get back to the shop.

Getting it right

I believe Patagonia is the poster company for authenticity. Let me explain using an example.

Chip Bell, Patagonia's receptionist, personifies the ethos of Patagonia - he's an 11 time world freestyle Frisbee champion, runs his own surf school for disabled kids, and finished second in a recent Patagonia vote to find the company's new president. Chip actually looks like the dude from the Big Lebowski - a cartoon Californian who radiates well-being, chill, and love of all things natural.

What's the significance of Chip? To steal a few paragraphs from my new book Didn't See It Coming,

"I'd say the secret is people who are remarkable, attract other people, and cheerfully express their honest beliefs in the products they make. Their "advertising" is the stories they share when customers come shopping.

You find these people everywhere, working for great companies. Nordstrom, Zappo's, Interface carpet."

The trick is, these people and their very genuine stories can't be invented. Marketers can't fabricate beliefs or values."

According to the folks at Patagonia, about 4000 applicants vie for every new job opening. Not only are the winning applicants smart and motivated - they have that rare spirit I described in Chip. So when you read a Patagonia ad, or visit a Patagonia store, you know they aren't putting on the happy face just for you. They're living their beliefs.

It starts with you

I've described the people of Patagonia. But make no mistake, they didn't create the culture. Yvon Chouinard, the founder, can be thanked for that.

If you read his book Let my people go surfing, you learn that he started his company as a means to enjoy the outdoors more. Everything Patagonia does (and every person they hire) embodies that ethos.

So can you do the same? Of course. It's as simple (and difficult) as following these two steps:
1. Discover what you stand for - No, this isn't 'Our passion is people' crap. This is about digging deep to describe what you really stand for - something that defines you as a person. If that doesn't spring to mind, find someone who can help pull it out of you. But be warned, all the easy, convenient, motivational poster clichés don't cut it here - it's bloody hard work getting to this.
2. Live it - Remember the story of the sculptor who said his craft was really quite basic...he started with a block of stone and chipped away everything that didn't look like the statue. What you have to do is chip away everything in your company that doesn't look like what you believe in. My advice is to start with the toilets, then move to the kitchen station.

Does this work? Of course it does. Is it easy? Of course it's not. Is it worth it? Next time you're in Ventura California, drop by Patagonia HQ and take a tour - you'll agree the result is very, very worth the effort.