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BEING PROFESSIONAL WITHOUT THE POLISH: THE VITAL BALANCE IN A WORK-FROM-HOME WORLD

Wed Apr 4 2020 Michael McQueen

As we all settle in to a new online mode of connecting with colleagues and friends from our living rooms and home offices, it seems we are all getting to know each other to a greater extent than ever before. As regular work conversations are now conducted to the background noise of children and kitchen benchtops are serving as the backdrops to Zoom meetings, we are being driven to a level of authenticity that we would potentially never experience in the pre-COVID corporate world.

Businesses are responding to this new shift in interesting ways. As regular marketing practices cannot be achieved without the effort of a team and the resources of a collaborative work space, companies are having to rework the way they promote themselves.

The retail company Zara has engaged creatively with this shift by turning to their models to become their own marketers. To align itself with the ‘stay at home’ message and in order to continue promoting its new designs, Zara has been encouraging its models to photograph themselves posing in their own homes in its latest designs.[1] As well as maintaining its own marketing, the move exhibits an appealing level of authenticity in the brand that the market is now able to engage with.

Rather than being transported to the exotic locations that the brand usually shoots in, consumers are being transported into the real, authentic and unique homes of the models themselves, gaining new exposure to the personalities and styles of the brand’s wearers.

This kind of authenticity is more important than ever in our modern age and COVID is helping us get there.

Neuroscientist and author of The Trust Factor, Paul Zak, has spent years studying what builds rapport and intuitive trust between individuals and has come up with some remarkable yet simple findings. 

According to Zak, the most important element in gaining or regaining trust is to dial up our ‘human-ness’. Appearing to be real, vulnerable and even fallible results in the release of the chemical Oxytocin in the brains of others. This is the neuro-mechanism humans have unconsciously used for centuries to determine who was safe enough to trust and work with. [2]

This is an important revelation for every leader, professional or brand. For years we have worked hard to project sanitized and corporatized versions of ourselves. In fact, so accustomed are we to inauthenticity in business, politics or media that when a leader stands up and acts like a human, we can scarcely believe it. Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch mosque attack in March 2019 is a case-in-point. Ardern’s genuine, empathetic and authentic actions in the weeks following the attack earned her admiration and affinity all over the world. 

Zara has done well to utilise the unique problems we are facing in this time to propel its brand into a new authenticity that is relatable and accessible to audiences. What better way to authentically engage with customers who are online shopping for clothes in their homes than model them on couches and kitchen tables!

A while ago, I received a regular email update from the Wall Street Journal and was amazed to discover a glaringly obvious typo in the third paragraph. What’s interesting is that my immediate response was to feel like the text I was reading was more honest and organic than previous editions I had received. 

This particular newsletter called The Future of Everything arrives in my inbox each week from a woman named Leigh Kamping-Carder. While The Future of Everything newsletter is always written in a warm and conversational tone, reading the typo in this particular edition made it feel like an email from an actual human named Leigh rather than the product of a journalistic machine that merely bore her name as the figurehead. I didn’t suddenly perceive Leigh and her team as incompetent or unprofessional but rather that they were real and imperfect like the rest of us. Better yet, my engagement in reading the newsletter and trust in the people that produced it increased. 

This is not to say we should deliberately make mistakes or celebrate stuff-ups. On top of this, we need to be careful that our attempts at authenticity are not compromising our production of quality. In fact, you could argue that underdelivering on quality would actually be compromising authenticity in a different way as our promises and our actions would not be aligned.

An example I’ve seen floating around the media in the last week is the recent Coles ads featuring Curtis Stone teaching some easy meals to cook at home. Deliberately produced in a low-quality way to appear as if he has filmed it himself in his kitchen, the ad series attempts to deliver an unpretentious, organic and relatable version of cooking that people can engage with in isolation. This message definitely comes through and the ads are appealing to the audience in its current state.

However, the challenge of hearing his instructions over the sizzling of pans and whirring of food processors depletes from the ad’s full value. While it certainly seems authentic, the sub-par audio means that the delivery of quality is compromised and the ad’s ability to fully engage audiences is forfeited.

Having grown used to the polished politics and shiny corporate messages of the modern world, people of our era are craving authenticity. As COVID-19 is forcing the professional world into the personal homes of its participants, it is giving us the unique opportunity to engage with markets in unprecedented ways, building a kind of trust that we have never had the opportunity to build before. Maintaining quality in our brand does not have take away from our authenticity – we simply must make sure our authentic selves are as high-quality as the brand we present to the world.

It is lessons like this that we would do well to hold onto in the post-COVID world we are all waiting for, so that the ‘normal’ we return to is more real, trustworthy and authentic than it ever has been before.

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Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.

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[1] Gayle, L 2020, “From catwalk to couch! Zara models photograph themselves at home in DIY shoots during lockdown to promote the retailer’s new collection,’ Daily Mail, 15 April.

[2] Snow, S. 2017, ‘Why Major Institutions Lost Public Trust, And How They Can Get It Back Again’, The Content Strategist, 15 December.