For marketers, authenticity is a pretty hot buzzword these days. Another pretty en vogue term is the concept of storytelling. The question is: can the two coexist?

Brands are constructed entities, but that’s okay: it doesn’t mean they’re fake. You can highlight certain parts of your brand’s personality or character in order to present a solid image; that doesn’t make it any less true. The only bad application would be to try to be something you’re not, something you should avoid anyway. Not only is this unethical, but it could backfire on your brand in a major way once people find out the truth.

A best practice is to be careful how your company presents itself if you can’t stand behind your persona. What works for many successful companies is to brand themselves in a way that appeals to a lot of people. Your brand is your reputation, and the foundation of your business. But many corporations, trying to put forth their best selves, make the mistake of engaging in deceptive behaviors. This is a risky and inadvisable approach. If you manipulate and mislead others or try to pander to an audience that doesn’t fit with who you are, you risk being called out. This can end up hurting your image beyond the scope of that one issue.

Understanding Your Constituencies

Noted strategist Minter Dial believes that there are three audiences that are “reading” your authenticity. The first, and arguably most important, are your employees. “If you’re not authentic as far as your employees are concerned,” says Dial, “you’ll face a real challenge recruiting and engaging talent.” Notably, this belief is listed as Dial’s first, but has seemingly become a serious oversight in some branding strategies. If you look at the work cultures of brands like Apple and Google, it’s clear they’re in the business of selling innovation, but both brands believe in pioneering the efforts of the human spirit. It’s there where innovation is combined with storytelling, creating a powerful brand culture that embeds itself in the brand’s overall strategy.

Your second importance constituency are your customers. Without authenticity, “they slowly but surely will take their business elsewhere,” says Dial, who notes that depending on the category, the speed with which this happens will vary massively. In order to reinforce your authenticity, Dial argues that authenticity in branding needs to be shared by a brand’s distribution partners as well. It also has to be shared with internal teams like customer service, which has now expanded beyond the general scope of cash registers and in-person engagement; it now includes email, web-chat and the most flammable of them, social media. Your digital strategy should include customer engagement and troubleshooting, even if it’s via Twitter.

The third key audience Dial emphasizes: shareholders, who historically might not have cared much about authenticity, but will increasingly care “as the Millennials become the investors” of tomorrow.

The Dangers of “Faking It”

Augie Ray, the Gartner Research Director and noted blogger, fears that brands worry too much about crafting their story, rather than actually giving customers and employees a reason to tell their brand stories. Ray cites brands like Walt Disney World Resort, Zappos, and Uber for being perceived as great because they provided great experiences, and in turn customers told those brand’s stories – not because of great content.

“If you get the customer experience right and create advocacy,” says Ray, “you can then leverage your customers’ and employees’ content to multiply the reach of your story. Zappos may produce the Culture Book, but it contains their employees’ stories. Disney World has a great website and certainly offers good emotional stories, but where the rubber meets the road, it integrates TripAdvisor ratings so that guests can help other guests make the right dining and hotel choices.”

Try to simulate authenticity, and there’s a good chance it might backfire in a big way. Look at the backlash against “healthy” brands Naked Juice and Odwalla. These fresh, natural drink companies are actually part of the industrial conglomerates PepsiCo. and Coca-Cola, respectively, and when this fact came to light, health-conscious consumers reacted with displeasure, to say the least. PepsiCo. doled out over $9 million in settlements after becoming embroiled in a class action lawsuit over use of phrases such as: “100% Juice,” “100% Fruit,” “non-GMO,” and “All Natural,” among others. There was a perception of inauthenticity, and the corporate brand took a hit.

It’s difficult to get away with inauthenticity for long. The experiences that people have with you–whether direct or indirect–shape their perceptions and their expectations. If you consistently fail to align yourself with the image you’re trying to portray, then sooner or later your audience will catch on. Deception might pay some dividends in the short term, but eventually you will find yourself stuck because you didn’t develop the skills, character, and work ethic necessary to advance legitimately. It’s possible to be authentic while still building an engaging narrative. Look at your unique abilities and the value that only you can offer. Highlight qualities that you actually possess and are proud of.

“Being authentic gives you the best shot at attracting the right customers,” says Melanie Deziel, the content marketing expert and founder of the Overlap League. “Even if you manage to ‘trick’ a few consumers into signing up for your newsletter, buying your product, or following you on social media by being inauthentic, they won’t be sticking around long… Sooner or later, your authentic self and motives will come through, and if those prove to be a mismatch with someone’s value, you’ll be unfollowed, unsubscribed from or have your product returned or abandoned anyway. If you can stay true to yourself, you’ll attract the kinds of clients and customers who are the best fit for you and will provide the most longterm value. And let’s be honest… that’s the goal of all this marketing stuff anyway, right?

Being and Doing Differently

Augie Ray cites a recent example from Lego, in which a young boy lost an important Lego piece wrote a cute letter to the company requesting a replacement. Lego went further than it had to, not only by creating a terrific customer experience but by “answering the boy in the most awesome way possible” according to Ray. The Lego example illustrates “how a brand’s story isn’t crafted by what the brand says about itself but about what it does.” Ray believes that nothing Lego could post on social media could go as viral, or make the emotional connection that the letter to the little boy had. And he’s probably right.

Of course, to be authentic, brand storytelling has to tie back to the experience that the brand is providing. “Content is not king; customer experience is,” says Ray. “Brands have to be and do something different, not simply say something different.” He believes that many brands get it wrong by trying to change the conversation via public relations or marketing campaigns, as opposed to simply focusing on what their customers are saying. Instead, customers keep sharing the same old complaints to friends, family, and complete strangers in person, over social media, and on ratings websites.

Ray believes that brands need to “change what they do and how they measure success; if they do that and create strong, differentiated experiences, they earn the right to tell their differentiated story. But brands that think that storytelling is just about saying something different or, heaven forbid, thinking that the secret to success is in how and where you tell the story (infographics on Snapchat!) will fail to tell a story anchored in reality. That, frankly, would be a recipe for failure.

Authenticity vs. Storytelling…or Authenticity + Storytelling?

While authenticity is important, we come back to the idea of storytelling being key to building a compelling brand. Many marketers want to present an idealized version of their brand to the world. In order to be an effective storyteller, what do you share, and what do you edit out? Or, in today’s society, is everything supposed to be public at this point? Some of these are questions only you can answer. Some companies are more likely to share their brand in its entirety, warts and all; others want to (or need to) keep as much as possible private.

For corporate brands looking to learn by watching individuals doing it right, branding expert Dorie Clark cites James Altucher as being an ideal candidate that balances brand authenticity with storytelling. Altucher “blogs for free and shares vulnerable stories about his business successes and failures, and was able to build a multimillion-dollar media company as a result of it.”

If you have the ability to elevate yourself to a position of authority within your industry, why not take advantage of it? People are looking to hire authorities. Ideally, those that balance the fine arts of storytelling and authenticity.

“Customers turn away when they feel you’re inauthentic,” says Clark, “and gravitate toward you and reward you when they feel they’re being told the truth and are getting the ‘real deal.”

We couldn’t agree more, Dorie.