Getting authenticity ‘right’ to grow business & make social change

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Getting authenticity ‘right’ to grow business & make social change

Related tags Soy milk

The requirement to be “authentic” to succeed in the competitive food and beverage industry is clear, but how consumers define authenticity and how companies can meet and benefit from this lofty standard is not as clear. 

“There is a lot of buzz out there these days”​ about what authentic means and how it translates into action, said Steve Demos, founder and former CEO of Silk soy milk maker WhiteWave Foods.

Some experts define authentic as a clean ingredient label, clear packaging, an associated charity and clear social mission that go beyond capitalism. But these are just elements or tools to express authenticity.

Authenticity is “about constancy, consistency, a truthfulness or sincerity that has to do with your definition of who you are and what you stand for,”​ he said during a webinar April 8 hosted by New Hope Media's NEXT Accelerator.

It is not about checking off the top trends of moment or being the best at something or the biggest, he said, noting those are shifting standards that have lost their meaning for many customers or have no longevity.

Rather, authenticity is the degree to which a business is true to its origins and character despite external pressures, which is not always easy, said Demos, recalling how he tried for 18 years at WhiteWave to convince Americans to eat more tofu even though at the time it was “the most hated food in the U.S.”

But, he said,  “we were relentless”​ in our authenticity , and eventually Americans came around to the health and environmental sustainability benefits of tofu, and in a doing so helped make WhiteWave an industry giant.

Incorporating “right livelihood”

Demos was able to remain authentic by weaving into every aspect of his company “right livelihood,”​ which he defined as something that is “good for me, good for you and good for everything it touches.”

Right livelihood serves as the North Star for determining what products, services and protocols a company should offer and follow – it is the boundary of the firm’s purpose, Demos said.

It also is the first of six elements of “right business,”​ by which Demos successfully founded and ran WhiteWave and on which he advocates all companies need to founded to succeed.

“Right business is complicated. Good intentions are not enough,”​ and neither is bleeding heart liberalism, he said. But if a company works hard and hits all six “rights”​ at the same time “something unique happens” ​and a business can take off.

Beyond right livelihood, the other rights include:

Right Product – “The right product fills a wholesome need and contributes to the betterment of humanity,”​ Demos said, adding: “The larger and deeper the human need, the more sustainable the business will be, and the larger scale the business will be.”

While Demos said there are no wrong products, he noted “if you are chasing the trend of the moment, the fad of the day, you are going to have a short term existence and you won’t have the right product.”

Right Passion – ​For a company to succeed, the leadership must believe in it to the point that they experience the “joy of the struggle,”​ Demos said.

Right Actions – ​Leadership’s actions must be consistent with the company’s mission on and off the job, Demos said. “You must have integrity inside and outside the business, up and down the entire value chain,”​ he added.

Right Discipline – ​Discipline can give companies freedom by providing enough direction that the stress of decision-making is eased and progress can happen, Demos said. The disciplines he found most useful at WhiteWave were: an organizational chart that was a map of team players rather than a power hierarchy; a “living”​ yearly plan in which the leaders define the goals but everyone else defines how to achieve the goals; monthly meetings that assess progress in fulfilling the yearly plans and allow for adjustments to be made to the plan; healthy gross margins even if it means raising prices and trimming other aspects of the company, such as marketing; and team SWOT meetings were leaders comb through their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Right Effort – ​While there are no guarantees about success, showing up and trying consistently goes a long way towards achieving it, Demos said. “It is called voluntary struggled: The willingness to jump in the fire and work with it no matter how big the threat or difficult.”

These elements can be challenging to juggle, but companies that manage them effectively will have clarity of boundaries, legitimate authenticity, self-esteem, courage of conviction and bragging rights at the dinner table, Demos said. And, he added, most importantly leaders of those companies will have enough self-confidence to sleep soundly the whole night through.


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