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The Competitive Advantage of Truth

Why Isn't It the Sole Purpose of Engagement?

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
Chevron's "We Agree" corporate social responsibility branding campaign ran into difficulties last week when culture-jammers created faux extra ads admitting to all of the company's irresponsible behaviors. Earlier this year, Barclays Bank put signs on rent-a-bikes in London hyping the same sort of messaging and saw stickers added to them with similar caveats. Every time consumers search the internet for information on company employment policies, sourcing practices or political giving, they're doing the same things only with less visible flair.

People are having conversations these days, only not "with" brands but "about" them. I'd like to suggest that we're at the start of something big -- something bigger than simple engagement or entertainment, and something that goes far beyond the merits of friends and followers on social technology platforms: The ultimate purpose of conversation is to produce a shared understanding of truth.

Doing so will emerge as the only real competitive advantage left to brands otherwise able to copy one another into commodification. Failing to deliver and sustain truth will be indicators of broader operational weaknesses.

Let's face it: We marketers have long tolerated a "truth gap." We've celebrated it, because it meant we were successful in our efforts to invent a host of imagined benefits for which consumers would pay extra. It didn't matter that the claims we claimed could never be substantiated, or that the values with which we associated our brands were purchased, not organic. Sell the same car or TV for more because of some sleight of superficial badge? No worries; nobody had the capacity or desire to discover the truth.

Not so much anymore. That truth gap is coming back to bite us.

I think this is what's happening when we see online customer complaints; sure, there are the actual performance slip-ups but the vast majority of product and service experiences leave consumers wishing they'd been faster, cheaper, better, more satisfying, or just somehow different. They can tell us now that they're simply disappointed by the reality of what they've bought. I've called this the "Twitter Tax," and the experts who celebrate it as an unleashing of customer empowerment confuse a symptom for the bigger challenge: We've got to come to terms with why they're increasingly disappointed in the first place.

What's your brand's truth gap? It could be huge and you could be making good money with it -- your taco chips will make munchers attractive to women, your cars are fun because twentysomethings shoot videos in them, or maybe you're happy to let your customers decide for themselves -- and quite arbitrarily -- what to value in your stuff, whether real or imagined, because you've "given up" your brand to them.

Or it could be a little gap that is growing incrementally. You've cut back on staffing, maybe outsourced some parts or ingredients of which you used to be proud, or otherwise downgraded your offering in the name of innovation. Hopefully, your consumers simply will get used to the new normal and let you pocket the difference.

The problem is that they'll figure out the truth sooner or later. They'll trip over it, a culture-buster will reveal it, or they'll realize they're complaining about the same thing over and over again, at which point it won't matter if what you neglected to explain to them or shaded somewhat finely was immensely important or incomprehensibly minor. They will think you lied, and your brand will suffer. And next time it'll be that much harder to tell them anything at all.

It's inevitable. Today's conversations reach far beyond social marketing tools to constitute a context in which everything your business declares and does is added to the mix. Even if you don't explicitly lie in your marketing, you are implicitly not helping truth perception when you promulgate content that has low to no truth quotient. You tolerate a truth gap.

Imagine instead if you took the time to use your engagement to actually inform consumers. It wouldn't have to be dour or boring, though making sure that your customers understood that banks don't make moral judgments when they write loans or that oil is going to be our primary energy source for the next century won't be easy. That's the rub. The real challenge isn't to find ways to avoid the truth or distract consumers from it (or shudder when it is revealed), but rather to creatively present it and make sure people understand it.

Go beyond transparency. Maybe the call-to-arms should be for "radical comprehension."

The quality of the truths that you and your customers shared would be an unbeatable competitive advantage; by definition, no other business could copy it, as no two businesses are alike. Brands that had customer relationships based on a knowing, accurate understanding of what's being transacted between buyer and seller would be more secure and sustainable (and profitable) over time.

I understand that consumers want to be engaged. They want to be entertained and they want discounts or free stuff whenever possible. It's the responsibility of CMOs to see that catering to those desires alone isn't what constitutes your marketing. It's not enough to let consumers be happy in their own worlds, or to let them "define the brands" because it's the easiest way to get them to buy in the short-term.

Consumers don't own your brands. You do. And it's your responsibility to tell them the truth. Learn from Chevron's mistake. It wasn't a bad campaign. It was a lie.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.

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Subscribe to comments on: The Competitive Advantage of Truth
  By melvinhale | Atlanta, GA October 25, 2010 08:05:11 pm:
Brilliant piece. Thank you!
  By trustdiva | toronto, ON October 26, 2010 08:44:17 am:
This is why I left the ad/marketing business many years ago. I couldn't sustain the clash with my values- trying to sell silly stuff with inflated claims to people who already had too much.

In my work, I advise clients to always ensure that anything you claim can be substantiated. Consumers aren't stupid and more so in this age of untruths, fabrications and cynicism. The public will hold you accountable and severely punish you if you try to manipulate them.

Transparency, integrity has always been the key to building trusting relationships. Why does it seem so novel these days when an exec or a company actually delivers what it promises. The brand promise is just that- a promise. Break that promise and there is no getting it back. Think of all the companies paying the price- Toyota comes to mind, BP, and any firm on Wall Street.

For more, you can visit my website I have a blog about all things TRUST
  By jmitchem | Charlotte, NC October 26, 2010 09:07:25 am:
You mention in your piece that "I'd like to suggest that we're at the start of something big....the ultimate purpose of conversation is to produce a shared understanding of truth."
Two things:
1) The advent of transparency via social media is not new. It started a few years ago and peaked during Barack Obama's run for the White House. I guess it could be considered new if you're looking at it on a timeline that includes decades into the future, but it's not new now.
2) Truth has always been the best way to get people to think about things differently. Just because the art of deception was prevalent in most marketers creative arsenals in the past doesn't mean it was right, or that it worked. If you sold a stick of bubble gum with the promise of it making your teeth whiter, and it didn't - then no one is buying that gum again and the brand was doomed for failure. Truth has always been the best policy for sales. The creative challenge is to work with all of the facts on the table, and then sort through them to discover the strongest appeal possible based on truth. It doesn't mean that you still can't be creative, it just means that you've got to try harder. Sure, this kind of truth discovery is not for every creative thinker, but in my career I've never once lied about a product or promoted an benefit that didn't exist - and somehow managed to help shift a lot of perception and sell a lot of goods and services. Social media just makes my job easier.
Thanks for this article. It confirms that I'd have never fit in with the golden age of advertising - but will continue to do well in the age of transparency.
  By jimholbrook | Los Angeles, CA October 26, 2010 10:15:05 am:
but sometimes you can have fun twisting the truth a little in order to make the point even more poignantly... for example, check out Jamba Juice's "cheeseburger chill" ad - - ... Jamba doesn't sell hamburgers; and I really wonder if McDonald's smoothies are any good? There's truth in here, just expressed with a little sarcasm!
  By LYNN | KENTFIELD, CA October 26, 2010 08:01:38 pm:
I couldn't agree more.

Lynn Upshaw
Author, Truth: The New Rules for Marketing in a Skeptical World (AMACOM, 2007)
  By MICHAEL | LAKE OSWEGO, OR October 26, 2010 01:07:38 pm:
This is as deluded as it gets. Lying is the bedrock of big business marketing. If it weren't, it would be a much simpler and less expensive endeavor.

And your emphasis on "shared meanings" tips your hand: You don't really advocate truth. You advocate smarter, tougher, more active indoctrination.
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