September 15, 2022
Case Study

“Authenticity” vs. “Professionalism”: Should you be your authentic self in your brand’s content and marketing? Or must you adhere to certain strictures considered “professional” in your industry?


You can’t throw a rock in social media without hitting a thought leader that tells you to “be authentic.”

And I have to admit, that message certainly resonates with me. Who wouldn’t want to be their genuine selves?

And then I thought of an experience my daughter had when we took her to an urgent care clinic. The doctor was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He could have been the best diagnostic physician in the world, but she gave him the hairy eyeball because of that shirt.

Which brings us to the essential questions we’ll be exploring in today’s article. Read on to see a test we ran on our own founder, along with experiences shared by marketers and entrepreneurs.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

“Authenticity” vs. “Professionalism”: Should you be your authentic self in your brand’s content and marketing? Or must you adhere to certain strictures considered “professional” in your industry?

This article was published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

I was on a call with Jalali Hartman and Flint McGlaughlin a few weeks ago. (For those not in the know, Jalali and Flint created and patented the MECLABS Conversion Sequence Heuristic decades ago and are now teaming up on the MECLABS Super Funnel Research Cohort).

Jalali mentioned in passing a test he was running called Business vs Cowboy, and right away, I realized I had to bring the results to you when he was done.

Now, I’ll warn you from the outset, this wasn’t the typical experiment you’ve seen from MECLABS Institute (parent organization of MarketingSherpa) with a rigorous Design of Experiments, Test Protocol, etc., etc.

But it was almost better, because it happened organically. Life, in a way, designed this experiment.

Showdown At High Noon: Business Flint vs. Cowboy Flint

You see, Flint went into the studio and recorded a video that Jalali could advertise. You can see it below.

Creative Sample #1: Business Flint, an example of professionalism

He then decided to go back into the studio and record a slightly different second version to give Jalali another option. Except he was in a hurry and didn’t bother to throw on a suit. He just went in dressed as he normally dresses.

Creative Sample #2: Cowboy Flint, an example of authenticity

Jalali decided to essentially let the audience choose…and ran a test.

When I hear about most experiments run by my colleagues at MECLABS Institute, or pitches from marketers and entrepreneurs to appear in the pages of MarketingSherpa, I do my best to stay unbiased.

But not this time. Imagine if Cowboy Flint won? Does that mean I could be (the Billy Crystal version) of Cowboy Dan and wear a Mets hat anytime I was in a video?

I’m not the only one who started thinking this way. Flint mentioned the test in a LiveClass along with some promising intermediate results, and on the following LiveClass I couldn’t help but notice many more hats on attendees heads – from Stetsons to military hats to golf hats.

One excited attendee even shared those intermediate results with his LinkedIn followers…

Creative Sample #3: Social media post about early results from authenticity vs. professionalism experiment

Creative Sample #3: Social media post about early results from authenticity vs. professionalism experiment

But folks, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from more than a decade reporting on marketing experimentation, wanting something to be so does not make it so. That’s why they run the experiment.

And while we all probably want authenticity to be effective, the data does not support it. Well, at least from this quick test. You can take a look at the numbers yourself…

Authenticity vs. Professionalism: Results

Pre-roll ad on YouTube retargeting previous MarketingSherpa site visitors. Retargeting videos play automatically, and the measurement is clickthrough rate (CTR) to website.

  • Cowboy – 41,199 impressions and 70 clicks
  • Business – 17,488 impressions and 45 clicks
  • Business won – 52% higher clickthrough rate with validity at a 98% level of confidence

Pre-roll ad on YouTube to new audiences. Interaction rate on YouTube is clickthrough rate to website or click to watch:

  • Cowboy – 142,221 views and 43,638 interactions (30.5% interaction rate)
  • Business – 978,944 views and 325,833 interactions (33.3% interaction rate)
  • Business won – 9% higher clickthrough rate with validity at a 99.99% level of confidence

“While both tests had some variations, I believe that Business Flint works better to get users to engage with the content. Perhaps Cowboy Flint in a more natural setting would produce different results,” said Jalali Hartman, Analyst, MECLABS Institute.

Now you sharp-eyed observers will note, this was not a 50/50 split test. In fairness, Jalali never meant this test to be published, he was simply getting in there and optimizing on the fly, so I had to convince him to let me publish the results. As I mentioned, this is not the typical MECLABS test.

So, this test is loaded with caveats. It is not meant to be the answer to a question, but rather I shared it with you because I thought it was a perfect chance to spur your thinking.

Use Real-world Performance To Help Shape Your Decisions

You can call it data-driven marketing. Evidence-based marketing. Whatever terminology you want to use. Make decisions based on real-world performance.

There is no shortage of social media influencers telling you to be authentic. And we all kind of agree, don’t we? It feels right. I mean, who among us wants to take to social media and say – “No, be inauthentic!”

But just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is.

This article is a little different than what we normally publish on MarketingSherpa. Our articles are normally filled with case studies. But for every case study we publish, I’ve probably gotten 50, maybe even 100 other pitches that are unsubstantiated thought leader opinions. It seems like the web is filled with thought leader opinions these days, trying to snag some SEO, and there is a dearth of real-world examples with results.

How do you make your decisions? Based on thought leader opinions? Or based on testing and learning?

Well, Don’t Only Use Real-World Performance To Shape Your Decisions

That said, data can only take you so far.

When we publish case studies, sometimes we get the response that “It worked for them but isn’t a fit for my brand.” That may be true. The point of the case studies we publish – and all data, really – is to inform a decision.

Not to make the decision.

That’s your job as a marketing leader.

In fact, when I talked to Flint about this test, he told me, “It’s important to make decisions based on other criteria as well. This is who I am, regardless of what the test says. To me, in a suit or a hat, they’re both me. But changing to put on a suit gets weary when you’ve been at as long as I’ve been.”

He continued, “When it comes to the funnel and conversion, it’s all about effectiveness and expediency. When it comes to being yourself, it’s a different question. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they just appreciate that I’m wearing what I normally wear.”

So, Daniel, Which Is It? Authenticity vs. Professionalism

As I said, this is just one test. It can’t answer that question for you, just spur your thinking about this – and hopefully many other – marketing decisions that have a certain trending conventional wisdom.

That said, let’s dive a little deeper into the test to see what we can learn.

Here’s Jalali’s interpretation of the test, “I believe this indicates the persona does make a difference. We served these ads to both new users and users who were familiar with Flint and in both cases the video of him wearing a suit got a higher level of interaction.”

He continued, “Still, I am interested to understand more about how our persona online impacts conversion and think we should test further. It's clear that there are numerous TikTok and YouTube influencers who don't subscribe to traditional video production norms that are quite successful attracting followings online by just presenting their authentic self.”

And here’s my take on it. For our audience, I think it matters where in the funnel we communicate with them.

For people who have been fans for years and regard Flint highly, like attendees of the MECLABS LiveClasses, they probably appreciate seeing the authentic Flint. It deepens their intimacy with him, seeing him as a real person and not just another flack in a suit. Not to mention, he has already served them with years of valuable content, so they have built up a trusting relationship.

However, for pre-roll ads on YouTube, maybe they are not ready to trust some dude in a cowboy hat yet. Even if they have already visited one of our websites. Maybe it’s too early in the funnel to have a casual relationship with these people.

We, of course, are talking about business-based marketing information. The authenticity vs. professionalism question likely varies wildly based on industry and ideal customer set. So I also sourced from other marketers for you to see a range of experiences, most of which counter our test results and favor authenticity. I hope seeing all of these experiences spurts new ideas for your own marketing campaigns.

Pharmaceutical and personal care company increases CVR  from 11% to 13% with Spanish content

“When your customer is made up of such a diverse population as is the US Hispanic market, authenticity is paramount in everything you do and having the right tools and partners to do it with is key. Part of that authenticity is being able to communicate in a culturally competent and linguistically fluent way, and so when Amazon made it possible for us to provide our own Spanish content, it was a game changer.

Once our own Spanish content was updated to the PDPs [Product Detail Pages], we saw conversion rates (CVR) pick up: CVR passed from 11% to 13% between Q4 2020 and Q1 2021.

DSP [demand-side platform, which is advertising on Amazon] efforts with creatives in Spanish accelerated our glance views: more than 400 MM [million] impressions and almost 1MM in DPV (Detail Page Views). SLP (Spanish Language Preference) DSP campaigns performed 2.5X better than English creatives in a full-funnel strategy.”

— Agustin Caceres, U.S. President & General Manager, Genomma Lab

Employee experience platform gets 615% more engagement by creating founder’s brand on social media

“Whenever I talk about my brand, Leena AI, I feel the most comfortable and authentic. As one of the founders, I feel proud to see the progress and speak about the successes of Leena AI on multiple platforms. That is one of the reasons why we started building a founder’s brand on our social media platforms, to help people know the face behind the brand Leena AI.

Since we started, we have been able to help attract investors, stakeholders, customers, and candidates as well towards our brand. We have realized that when people start associating a person – an actual human – with a company, they are able to trust the company far more.

The experience has been fulfilling so far. On our aforementioned founder’s brand, we have been able to share insights from my day-to-day life at Leena AI, stories behind the brand, and that of my co-founders. Since the initiation of the founder's brand, we have also seen an increase in the number of relevant viewers, impressions, and engagement by 267%, 500%, and 615% respectively, within 30 days.

Additionally, we also saw an increase in our social media family with over 600 new relevant followers within the same span. These are two of the biggest achievements we have seen in terms of progress.”

— Adit Jain, Co-founder and CEO, Leena AI

Creative Sample #4: LinkedIn post from founder about growth of company

Creative Sample #4: LinkedIn post from founder about growth of company

Creativity café gets 9 million views on TikTok and an NBC reality show by letting personality come through

I have found that transparency and honesty is the best policy when it comes to my brand’s content and marketing. This is, admittedly, easier in my industry – arts and experiences for kids – than it may be in other industries. However, I very much found that once I let my own personality come through, rather than fitting a certain mold, I gained much more traction. I may not be everyone's cup of tea but, for those I resonate with, they are more likely to become true ambassadors of my business.

Specifically, over the last year I began to focus on building a presence on TikTok and Instagram that was a reflection of my personality and the essence of our business. The fun, positive, and encouraging tone of my posts helped me craft my message and my niche. Most importantly, it grew my reach to a broader age and geographic range through a number of viral posts and hundreds of thousands of followers [Within a few months of joining TikTok, Brackbill’s viral posts generated over 9 million views, with one of her largest viral videos reaching over 5 million views, and the account has 219,000 followers].

This has opened many doors to potentially expand my brand and to unique fact it landed me on a new reality show on NBC [‘Dancing With Myself’] this summer where I was able to promote my business even further! Creating an accessible, authentic presence has really helped to open many doors I didn't think possible.”

— Robin Brackbill, Founder, Fabby-Do

Creative Sample #5: Tik Tok video from creativity café founder

Creative Sample #5: Tik Tok video from creativity café founder

Digital marketing company gets 33% more conversion with “My Manifesto” website section

“People want to do business with other people, not faceless corporations. They want to know who they are buying from, what they stand for, and what their experience has been like.

I have seen firsthand the power of authenticity in marketing and content strategy, and in fact, my website has a ‘My Manifesto’ section. This includes my story, my personal mission, and my core values. I believe this is important because it gives people a sense of who I am, what I stand for, and why they should work with me.

 Since adding this page, I have seen a significant increase in website traffic and inquiries from potential clients – leads increased by 20% and conversions increased by 33%. I believe that this is because people are able to connect with me on a personal level and know that I am someone they can trust.

Additionally, being authentic also allows you to be more vulnerable, which can lead to deeper and more meaningful relationships with your audience. This means that they are more likely to be loyal and engaged customers who will continue to do business with you for years to come.”

— Sinoun Chea, CEO and Founder, ShiftWeb

Creative Sample #6: “My Manifesto” section of digital marketing company’s website

Creative Sample #6: “My Manifesto” section of digital marketing company’s website

Financial comparison website gets featured on 18 news channels with relatable content

“When I first became the company’s spokesperson in South Africa, I was a bit nervous about how to present myself. I didn’t want to come across as phony or inauthentic, but I also knew that I needed to be true to my brand. Luckily, I was able to find my true voice and it has been an amazing experience getting to adopt my authentic self. I never thought that I would be able to have such a huge impact by just being myself, but it turns out that people really respond to honest and relatable content.

Since adopting this strategy, we've seen a huge spike in interest from media outlets and users from South Africa. We've even been featured on 18 news channels and numerous podcasts, and our country’s users have increased by 30%. It feels great to know that we are making a difference and connecting with people on a real level.”

— Lorien Strydom, Executive Country Manager,

Authenticity powers 5 million sales for fitness product

“Authenticity is the driving force of our marketing strategy for our product that sold to over five million people worldwide. I say this as the CMO of the Leg Master, a fitness equipment brand designed to target the hips and strengthen the pelvic floor. The brand is a massive success globally and I attribute this to the authenticity of the Summers couple, who founded the product.

Neil Summers, husband to Fiona Summers, invented the Leg Master to remedy his wife’s weakening pelvic floor. After bearing five children, Fiona’s pelvic floor muscles became so weak that her first priority anywhere she goes is to clock the nearest bathroom. It came to a point that it was already a nuisance for the couple and Neil knew he had to innovate a solution. Now, Fiona herself is the figurehead of the brand as a testament to the effectiveness of the Leg Master.

The Summers couple wanted to share their story in hopes to reach out to others who are in a similar situation as they once were.”

— Claudia Gancayco, Marketing Director, Leg Master

Related Resources

How to authentically build communities from the co-founder of Reddit

Authentic Marketing: How The Onion built trust with skeptical customers to grow into a $500 million brand

Content Marketing: 9 examples of transparent marketing

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