What’s true of people is equally true of brands. Despite this, it is natural for brands and brand managers to try to whitewash their reputations; to brush any negativity under the carpet; to perpetuate the idea that their brand always acts with impunity and their products are as close to perfect for whatever task they fulfill.
In other words, nobody’s perfect and hype is natural.
While telling the truth has been a moral imperative for millennia, it took a visionary like Bill Bernbach to recognize it as a commercial imperative too when he famously observed that “nothing will kill a bad product faster than good advertising.” It was a short leap from this to his declaration that “the most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”
This sounds like common sense today, but back then it was such a radical idea that in 1990 Dudley Moore’s comedy classic Crazy People mocked it mercilessly. The premise was that anyone telling the truth in advertising could be declared insane and the kicker was that telling the truth ended up as just one more advertising gimmick.
That was then. This is now.
In the digital and social universe advertising has found an enormous echo chamber where brand messages are either amplified or ignored, reproduced in hi-fi or distorted, celebrated or rejected.
There’s lots of advice out there on how to respond effectively to complaints on owned social channels: respond quickly and with sincerity, apologize when appropriate, take the conversation off-line, etc.
But brands that try to sweep any negativity under a digital rug need to confront the reality that their owned social platforms only account for a small corner of the echo chamber. Most of the commentary on their products, their services or even their corporate behavior is happening on platforms over which they exert little or no control. The conversations and comments on Amazon, CNET, Slate or Huffington Post will happen despite a brand manager’s best efforts to control the dialogue.
So what’s a brand to do?
Well, it’s useful to bear in mind that “truth” has never been a more ambivalent concept than it is today. One of my left-leaning friends blogged after the Republican Convention that we live in a post-truth era; I’m sure there are many Republicans who will feel the same way once proceedings wrap up in Philadelphia this week. And that’s precisely the point; the absolute concept of truth has devolved into ‘truthiness’, just one narrative frame competing with other narratives for adherence in its beholder’s mind.
If it feels right, it’s true. Or at least, true enough.
So our vast digital echo chamber reverberates with emotion. It is a place where people go to find justification for the way they feel about things; about candidates; about politics; about celebrities; about the news; about products, about brands and about companies. And the fact that I will very likely never read a Republican complaining about Democrats practicing ‘post-truth’ politics won’t invalidate the observation; it will simply prove the point that we humans seek out the truths we want to be true.
Neuro-economists call it confirmation bias. It’s a pre-cognitive force that our conscious minds are often powerless to resist.
Ultimately it is a question of trust; consumers will inherently feel they can trust your messaging or they cannot. Or in social media, they will instinctively trust some comments and safely ignore or vehemently counter-argue the others.
And here’s where brand managers can finally exert some influence on matters. It’s important they ask themselves whether people have any sense of their brand’s motivations, of the ideals it espouses and stands for — and against — in this world. At DDB we work with our clients to articulate a brand’s “fight”, the idea that we go to battle for every day.
Why? Because if your audience trusts your motives, they will forgive the occasional transgression. Consider Donald Trump’s shocking claim that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and [he] wouldn’t lose any voters”. For voters, what a man (or woman) stands for, trumps what that man actually does.
As a positive example, consider Domino’s Pizza, a brand that has long delighted consumers with engaging and useful innovations. But the Michigan-based company had an Achilles heel – inconsistent taste and quality product experiences – that it addressed with its ‘Pizza Turnaround’ initiative. Many brands have undergone similar quality improvement programs and been disappointed by the marketplace impact; for Dominos, however, it resulted in a huge improvement in customer satisfaction, company revenue and business growth since 2009. The brand’s customer satisfaction index score increased 12 percentage points and Domino’s now leads among top restaurant franchises—including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Brands, Yum! Brands and McDonald’s—in international store growth, growing 43% since the end of 2008. (Source: FreshMr.com, MotleyFool.com).
In effect, Dominos became the brand that people had always wanted it to be.
Consumers can be thought of as voters who cast their ballots with their credit cards. If we swing them to our side by impressing them with our ideals, if we demonstrate that our values and theirs coincide, we stand a good chance that they will not be swayed by the slings and arrows of an often-hostile social universe.