The Search for Trust: Bravery in a Post-Truth World

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Is there anything that better captures the zeitgeist of today than the word ‘post-truth’? Mentions of it rose 2000% last year and it was even chosen as ‘word of the year’ by Oxford dictionary. But what does it really say about us, and what are the consequences for businesses and brands?

What is post-truth

The definition of post-truth is “circumstances where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief”. The word’s sudden popularity has been driven by politics, in an attempt to describe the seeming indifference of the mass public when presented with experts and facts that disprove what they believe at heart to be right.

Many no longer believe in the political establishment – a shocking 43% of the US population distrust the economic data published by the government, and 55% of the UK population believes the government is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here. So when Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ are proven to be outright lies, supporters who believe his overall message aren’t surprised or outraged. In fact nearly half of us agree: “I would support politicians I trust to make things better for me and my family even if they exaggerated the truth”.

Rising cynicism

Whilst post-truth has typically been used in a derogatory way by those aghast at the seeming ignorance of right leaning voters, in fact it’s indicative of a much wider trend that applies to all of us. 2017 has been labeled the year of ‘trust in crisis’ with eroding trust in all prominent institutions from media to NGOs and businesses.

And it’s not particularly surprising – we are living in an age of fake news, troll farm clickbait, instagram filters and media sensationalising. The predictions of statistically significant opinion polls and well-educated economists regularly fail. As Michael Gove stated, “people in this country have had enough of experts”, which makes sense when there are always such experts on both sides of an argument. So is it any wonder the public is adopting a healthy dose of cynicism and reverting to their personal beliefs in the face of being unable to really know what to believe?

The effect on big business

A report has found the average UK consumer now ‘distrusts’ UK businesses to do what’s right, with trust declining year on year. With trust one of a brand’s most valuable assets, this will ultimately affect their bottom line. Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, for example, has been estimated to cost the business up to $86m. So how can businesses continue to succeed in a post-truth world where cynicism is high?

Product transparency

On the front line of the brand-consumer relationship is the product. Consumers are reacting against complex labels full of artificial, unpronounceable ingredients and shady sourcing practices. Demand for simple, local and clean is rising as skeptical consumers seek short-cuts to credibility.

But this is not simply a quick-fix of a reformulation and label change. Consumers are responding to businesses who demonstrate transparency and honesty from the top-down. Innocent unlocked this at launch because ‘simple goodness’ didn’t seem like a marketing gimmick but a reflection of the businesses values.

After all, true transparency means you can see through to the core.

Honest advertising

Working for an advertising agency, it’s easy to distance yourself from the post-truth world. After all, we wouldn’t get past the ASA if our ads were not legal and truthful. However, just because we cannot replicate the outright lies of politicians, doesn’t mean we aren’t still experts in bending the truth.

We airbrush naturally beautiful models to sell moisturizer and make-up, hoping the implicit message is that you too can be beautiful if you simply spend with us. Images of food are primped and preened and made inedible by a food stylist before a single photo is taken.

And consumers are reacting to this fakery. Nielsen found consumer trust in TV advertising fell 4% between 2013 and 2015, whilst newspaper and radio ads were down 6%. Brands like Dove, with its un-airbrushed ‘real women’, and Lurpak with its messy imperfect food, capitalized early and benefitted. But consumer expectations are constantly rising – a couple of years ago ‘realness’ in advertising could be achieved with realistic, normal actors, now the brands ahead of the curve are using influencers to provide that extra dose of credibility.

Inversion of influence

The 2017 Edelman trust report has reported ‘the inversion of influence’. It describes that while trust in the big institutions is declining, trust in the mass population of ‘people like me’ is rapidly rising.

This means that brand reputation is now heavily dependent on the consumer and what they say about the brand to friends and family, off and online.

This helps to explain the huge increase in media spending going towards everyday influencers who are still seen by their followers as credible and believable. But this route comes with caution – big brands like Procter and Gamble and Mondelez have had social content banned by ASA for not making it clear enough that it was paid promotion.  16% of consumers say they have seen brands pay for promotion without declaring it and 21% say they have seen brands incentivize positive comments.

The need for bravery

It requires a big dose of bravery to have transparent business models, honest advertising, and to relinquish control to your audience – as together they expose the brand warts and all. However, in a cynical post-truth world, where consumers can see straight through half-measures, they become necessities for building trust.

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