It’s not easy to be authentic, either as a human or a retail brand. It requires integrity, and we often lose our integrity in favor of short-term results. Whole Foods Market has it. Ben & Jerry’s had it and lost it. Starbucks is in danger of losing it. As a rare and awesome force for building and differentiating brand, authenticity is worth every effort it takes.

According to sociologists, life and business are moving so fast, people have no real, permanent sense of place. We’re desperate for things that have withstood the test of time—like a brand with a powerful idea, such as freedom, reliability or community. A strong point of view or a passion resonates. Bass Pro Shops knows half the fun of an outdoor adventure is the cool gear. The Container Store understands the emotional benefits of tidy shelves and bins. Nau, the new eco-apparel store, is fiercely devoted to profit and planet.

To find or reconnect with its core value, a company would do well to relentlessly strip itself down to one idea that is simple and profound—the brand essence—and translate it into a story. Vivid stories have the power to shape the behavior of everyone in the company and define the shopping experience. They inspire distinctive touches such as Trader Joe’s Hawaiian shirts and Barnes & Noble’s comfy reading chairs.

Marketing can trumpet authenticity to the skies, but it takes discipline to deliver it year after year. A retailer’s energy in the context of shopper insight, brand and profitability must be constantly aligned against the core to grow the business and maintain its soul. If shopper touch points fail to convey a strong sense of self and a memorable experience, authenticity can become diluted.

Growing Pains

As Krispy Kreme discovered, aggressive growth can sometimes put the brand experience in jeopardy. Starbucks is right to be concerned for its goal of 40,000 outlets around the world. Ubiquity could render it meaningless. On the other hand, if the brand perseveres, it could become a global placeholder in a changing world. Nike believes that deeper insights into its customers’ needs is the antidote for getting too large.

Rigid dogma, however, is not the same as authenticity. To remain relevant, a retail brand must move with the times and still be original. When fast food was blamed for an obesity epidemic, McDonald’s kept the Happy Meals, which were uniquely their own, but made them relevant to changing needs with healthier offerings.

When Sears was at it speak, its bond with the shopper amounted to a spiritual kinship. To get back to its core and its customers, Sears is opening appliance and hardware stores, where its Kenmore and Craftsman brands can peel back the layers to their original story of trust and reliability. For both people and retail brands, knowing who you are will keep you from foolishly trying to be something you’re not.

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