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The Consumer Need for Truth: Businesses Must Act Now

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In an era of fake news, hacking scandals and political and economic uncertainty, consumers are seeking businesses and brands that are transparent and trustworthy.

The dust is settling on the results of the US Midterm Elections, where the Democrats have made significant wins in the House, whilst the Republicans have significantly increased their majority in the Senate.

These elections have unfortunately illustrated in the starkest terms the polarisation of American society.

Something startlingly obvious is that the next two years of internal politics in the US are set to be even more divisive and aggressive than the ones we’ve just observed from the other side of the Atlantic.

The most immediate battle relates to the Mueller enquiry into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign team and the Russians, regarding the 2016 Presidential Election.

As stated by The Times, “It is already plain that Moscow tried to meddle with that 2016 election. The outstanding questions are how this was done, with whom and to whose benefit. These are issues touching every western democracy that has found the telltale tracks of Russian hacking, social media manipulation or suspicious financing channels”.

Those elections and this week’s midterms have also served to show how the decline of trust and the need for truth are such crucial issues for society, at a time when both seem to be in short supply.

Of course, those issues are as important for businesses as they are for society in general. In a purely branding context, the maxim that “consumer trust is the basis of all brand values, and therefore brands have an immense incentive to retain it” is as true when Trump is President as it was when Reagan was in the White House, back when the term ‘Post-Truth’ was first coined.

Let’s face it, we all know that businesses want to have strong and long-lasting relationships with their consumers. And the brand-consumer relationship is one that, like all strong and long-lasting relationships, is built on trust.

But as I say in my book, The Post-Truth Business, in a post-truth world, brands have a serious problem when so much of modern life is defined by mistrust, and people are increasingly asking, who can we really trust?

This is a problem which affects us all. We’re living in a media landscape where the truth is deliberately manipulated, trust has been catastrophically devalued and organized misinformation is a growth business.

This is a fundamental problem for democracy, with transparency and truth being such key foundations. The situation is based on two issues which combined to devastating effect: Post-Truth and Fake News.

A report from the Rand Corporation titled the Truth Decay explored the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life. Their report identified four trends that characterised the issue: “increasing disagreement about facts and interpretation of data, a blurring between opinion and fact, the increasing relative volume of opinion and experience over fact, and declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts”.

Meanwhile, over the time that it took me to write The Post-Truth Business, the issue of a breach of trust was - and continues be – shown in the starkest of terms by the incredible controversy over social media companies. Those ‘giants of Silicon Valley’ were unmasked as being to blame for appalling misuse of our personal data, linked to seemingly endless examples of their products and platforms being linked to election interference and social disruption around the world.

Although they’ve clearly made efforts, albeit having been forced, to combat fake news and disinformation, there’s much more that they could, and should, be doing to combat those who seek to destabilise, distort and dismay our societies.

I could have very easily written a book about nothing but these issues, as they play such a pivotal role in the overall context in which business and therefore brands operate. This toxic environment is a real problem for brands of all types, as it also includes the dangerous issue of ‘image contagion’. Brands must, therefore, realise that ignoring the situation in the hope that it’ll go away is not an option.

It is instead, I firmly believe, a key issue, as ‘reputation capital’ is such a vital consumer signifier; being made up of the ‘honest, competent and reliable’ values that play such a key role in the foundation of successful, enduring brands.

Because just running an advertising campaign stating that a brand is trustworthy isn’t good enough. This isn’t a marketing issue, this is a business-wide issue, involving every facet of the organisation, hence leadership being so important.

Companies have to be consistent in their behaviour, from top to bottom, and right along the supply chain, from the ‘first hand of production to the final hand of the consumer’. But a problem that’s becoming ever more visible is that some organisations have made authenticity their marketing strategy, rather than a business one. As a result, they come across as manufactured i.e. the very opposite of authentic. 

And this genuinely has to go all the way. Make no mistake, organizations and brands that want to earn and keep our trust have to ‘live it like they say it’. Because business has to be about more than just profit.  

Company strategists are finally realising that consumers are increasingly judging brands by how they actually behave, as opposed to simply believing the stories they tell. Thus their brand credibility needs to be based on fact, not fiction.

The ‘actual’ difference between ethical brands with a moral code and those exposed as being without one, is increasingly a key factor in consumer brand adoption or rejection. This approach very much links to social innovation and indeed conspicuous altruism.

‘Social Purpose’ is a phrase used obsessively by modern, forward-thinking leaders, and links directly to joint value creation where both shareholders and society benefit from business. Yet many still attempt to portray, or indeed dismiss, the demographic most associated with this ideal as being one where, as The Guardian put it recently “the idea that market activity should have a purpose other than pure profit is roughly where it always was on the spectrum, somewhere between Marx and Jesus – one for the rioters, the subversives, the people with beards, unsuited to mainstream discourse.”

To illustrate that this thinking goes right to the top of hard-headed business thinking, in their Reflections from Davos report regarding the 2018 meeting of the World Economic Forum, the managing partner of McKinsey was quoted as saying “the next innovation imperative will be social innovation – business’s role will be critical here.” The report went on to note “society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose”. 

Fortunately, there are numerous shining examples of organizations that are showing us all ‘how to do it better’ ranging across the business spectrum, in sectors ranging from beauty to finance, and from fashion to beverages.

With good leadership at the core of these businesses, every member of the organization is enabled to understand and demonstrate ‘why they do it, what they do and how they do it’. And this means leaders of companies taking deliberate and definitive action to ensure that their businesses demonstrate ‘corporate social leadership’.

Meanwhile, a huge number of other brands need to take action to rebuild their authenticity. A key lesson I’ve learnt over twenty years of conducting research in Europe, Asia, Russia, Africa, the Middle East and North America is that a great deal of the accepted thinking within client-side marketing teams and their agency partners appears to be incredibly unrealistic. That is, as opposed to actual consumer beliefs about, and their experiences of, brands in the real world. This is often where the ‘credibility gap’ comes into play, and a brand with weak credibility is a weak brand.

I hope my book clearly illustrates a range of crucial issues which cannot be ignored by marketers, as they endeavour to achieve or rebuild the levels of ‘reputation capital’ required when the number one issue for brands is trust.

Because when the choice is available, if a brand isn’t trustworthy, it’ll be rejected in favour of one that is.

That’s why I firmly believe that, with attention turning to the 2020 Presidential Elections, alongside many others around the world, more and more leaders, strategists, marketers and creatives are realising that they’re in the Post-Truth Business.