Keeping It Real: Commercial Brands Versus Personal Brands on Social Media

When it comes to commercial brands versus personal brands on social media, there’s a clear double standard that exists. While commercial brands often get burned for being inauthentic, ordinary folks typically get a pass for employing the same kinds of social media trickery that can put brands into hot water. Increasingly, brands are being called out for their carefully curated, overly staged, highly PhotoShopped depictions of people, places and things associated with their brands. Meanwhile, social media celebutantes are generally lauded for sharing their carefully curated, overly staged, highly PhotoShopped depictions of their so-called real lives. Being a celebutante myself, I wanted to share some of my best Instagram pictures — all of which have some editing and filtering.

Blame it on the ease of time shifting and pixel pushing used to create an idealized social media life. However, scratch beneath the glossy veneer of Facebook or Instagram perfection and it becomes evident that many social media types are far from presenting their authentic selves. Yet, organizations and brands that put themselves out there on social media are frequently held to a much higher standard of authenticity than the people who criticize them.

Fashion and lifestyle brands such as ModCloth, Seventeen Magazine and Aerie received praise for going “all natural” by showcasing unretouched (which is a real term, btw) images of their models. See an example from ModCloth’s Model of the Month picture. Call it the “Dove Real Beauty” effect: Consumers are pushing back at brands and demanding more realistic portrayals of people and products, forcing brands to rethink how they present beauty standards to the mostly-not-model-perfect-or-sized-zero huddled masses. Although consumers may be asking brands to show a warts-and-all picture of their brands to the world, most people don’t apply the same rigorous rules to their picture-perfect, blemish-free social media presences.

It’s a strange disconnect that brands need to grapple with in this brave new social media-driven world. As ordinary people have become more savvy about the social media representations of their personal brands, commercials brands are being asked to adopt a less polished, decidedly amateur approach that’s apparently more “real” — or at least simulates realness.

If realness is the coin of the realm nowadays, then there’s a lot of counterfeit coins currently in circulation. All of the criticism aimed at brands about their authenticity — or lack thereof — seems to have spawned a cottage industry of content creators who help brands make their social media presences appear more like those of “real” people. Brands have taken a page out of the playbooks of non-commercial social media players, which is to say, the deluge of brands offering up the real stuff are probably doing much of the same smoke-and-mirrors wizardry that have allowed regular people to create their own perfectly flawed, perfectly fake but seemingly authentic lives on social media.

Let’s call these brand exploits what they really are: PR stunts. In some ways, commercial brands’ drive to show their authentic selves on social media directly taps into the growing anxiety that ordinary citizens struggle with. In our world of social media overload, the combination of #YOLO and #FOMO makes for a potent cocktail that can make even the most clear-eyed Luddite a bit envious and desirous of being a part of the real and authentic stuff that brands are selling us — no matter how contrived and carefully crafted it might actually be. Rather than throwing stones at glass houses, consumers probably need to re-evaluate their expectations of brands as well as their expectations of their friends and frenemies on social media.

After all, consumers might expect clothing brands to represent all shapes and sizes or demand that magazines use “natural” photos with little to no PhotoShopping to promote “real beauty,” but these same consumers should abide by the same standards of realness that they ask of commercial brands.

Indeed, we might be at a tipping point when it comes to keeping it real — at least on social media. While apps like Instagram have empowered users to tweak photos to within a pixel of their lives, some users have stopped filtering with Valencia or Clarendon all together and started getting real with #NoFilter to show what’s really going on. Perhaps our social evolution has led us to share what’s real instead of what’s perfect.