Humility follows authenticity

August 2009

I’m not entirely sure what got me thinking about it quite so much, but of late I’ve given rather a lot of thought to the characteristics I least like in the people I know. Perhaps it was turning 50 last year and, believing I was older and wiser, started to instinctively analyse the years that had gone past in a whole load more detail than I previously had, or perhaps it was simply just that at my age you know what you like and you know what you don’t.

Anyway, I’ve decided that the human characteristic I most dislike is a complete, or near complete, lack of humility. Before going any further though let’s be absolutely clear about what humility is: ‘the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc’ (thank you I should also say though that I don’t have a problem with blowing one’s own trumpet – I’m rather inclined to do that myself as it happens – and success should certainly be voiced and indeed celebrated. No, what I’m talking about are those that go through life believing they’re better than the rest of us (when they’re patently not) and when the compulsive desire they have to shine through at all times means making themselves thoroughly unpopular – apparently a small price to pay for the self-obsessed (assuming they realise it of course).

I have a friend – and he is a friend, of sorts, despite his condition – whose life almost entirely revolves around status, superiority and knowing everything. In order to fulfil these desires and now largely retired, he’s found positions for himself in public and local life which allow him to pretty much command the top role (‘big fish fairly small pond’ stuff). This then means answering to few, and having a fairly high degree of influence over rather more. He loves it. A conversation with the same man can, at times be both frustrating and entertaining, as he’s constantly trying to second guess what you’re going to say and therefore continually tries to finish your sentence for you. (The ‘entertaining bit is when he gets it wrong.) And ask him a question he doesn’t know the answer to? He’ll make one up in a flash. The point is of course that the fear of you actually demonstrating that you know something he doesn’t drives him to take these extraordinary actions – and ones he probably now doesn’t even consciously consider taking as it’s become so natural.

So before this month’s comment takes on the nature of one better suited to ‘psychology monthly’, let’s get it back on track and make the comparison with brands. (Oh come on – I was always going to do that and you should have seen it coming…)

Last month I talked about authenticity in brands and it strikes me that humility nicely follows this: If you’re authentic, then no need to kid the world you’re something you’re not – you can confidently say how good you are and still come over as modest. Why? Because if you’ve got your act together and in all respects, you’ll be delivering on your brand promise anyway.

Humility in a brand can of course also be demonstrated by coming clean when the brand screws up – and even the best screw up from time to time. The damage done by not showing humility in these situations was perfectly demonstrated by the relatively small number of MPs who continued to insist, even after mounting evidence, that cases such as claiming for mortgages which had already been paid off, were simply ‘careless accounting errors’. Who were they kidding! The public would actually have respected them rather more (or perhaps disrespected them rather less is a better way of putting it) if an answer of ‘the system let me take advantage but I now deeply regret doing that’.

But putting the example of coming clean aside and looking more broadly at brands which seem authentic and demonstrate humility and all to their benefit, who are they? Well the Co-op takes quite a nice stance in the grocery market (think about their advertising) and this seems to be helping to bring it out of its ‘sleeping giant’ status. On the supermarket shelf Innocent Drinks takes a fairly modest stance and in fact this seems to underpin its brand strategy (no need to ‘talk up’ and get boastful about simple and pure ingredients).

Actually though, brands typically either demonstrate humility or a lack of it when you have direct contact with them. So just like with my friend and if they lack it, a conversation soon draws out the inner self and they just can’t help themselves having the final word.

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