The Truth About Brand Honesty


Marketing is about selling. Except that it isn’t. But if it were about selling, brand honesty might not be a priority.

If this were the case, marketing would be about convincing, cajoling, and interrupting. It would require lofty claims, and desperate slogans. It would make promises it could never honour. So more often that not, honesty would just get in the way.

And within the remit of marketing and advertising, this is how it’s been for decades. In a sense, brands have and will always try to present themselves in the most attractive light. And in the decades past, they could afford to stretch the truth.

Back then commerce was one-way traffic. Companies made goods, and consumers bought them. If the goods were made for a competitive market, companies could buy big, sexy advertising to convince people to buy their goods.

Such advertising frequently boasted claims that would make modern marketers blush. But there were very few platforms to pull up anyone on their brand honesty, save for perhaps word-of-mouth.

And today, many businesses are still inauthentic in representing themselves (albeit in subtler ways than false advertising). Rather than figuring out how best to deliver value, they sell themselves on SEO optimisation and buzzwords, hacks and half-truths.

But today, marketing is not about selling. Not anymore.

Connect the Dots

Effective marketing today, is about alignment and connection. It seeks to serve others, by connecting people to brands and services that deliver meaningful value to them.

It is far more transparent and exposed, and the stakes are much higher. As revealed on the Sprinklr blog, some 80% of consumers engage with brands on social media. 54% of customers prefer social messaging channels for customer care, rather than phone or email. Added to this, it costs 6x more to solve a customer issue through a call center than on social media. That’s the kind of number that most brands would hard pressed to ignore.

And there’s the small issue of public relations. A single bad review on TripAdvisor can change the fortunes of a Bed & Breakfast overnight. A few bad reviews can cause a major Smartphone product launch to prematurely fold.

So with all this, it’s not enough to make inflated and sales-y claims about our services. It’s not enough to use the marketing jargon in our ‘about’ page, that we aren’t really about. Or make false promises to our customers, just to get their custom.

It might work for a bit, but not for very long. The internet has gotten pretty good at calling out BS.

Fake It Till You Break It

One marketing tactic, is the strategy of ‘fake it ’til you make it’. Here a brand or a company cultivates an image beyond their current standing, in the hope that they will soon embody that compelling future. That by projecting a certain image, they’re more likely to manifest it as reality.

This popular concept can be highly effective on a personal, individual level, and in a business context – as long as there are checks and balances.

Aspiration is great – as long as we remain realistic, and invest our energies and resources in worthy places.

There’s the famous story of Charles Saatchi, who often staffed his burgeoning ad agency with pretend creatives to project the right image:

“We used to hire people off the street to man the typewriters and click away busily whenever a prospective client walked through, creating an atmosphere that was thrusting and vibrant.”

But he goes on to express his embarrassment at such ‘ridiculousness’ long ago.

So, should you max out your finance for an exotic sports car, because you believe it will build credibility for your life coaching business? Stretch the truth too far, and you’ll probably break it.

What worked years ago for a very few people, has likely been replicated by many to a lesser effect. And by now, such shenanigans would probably do more harm than good.

Truth Shall Set You Free

So how do we go about cultivating authentic brand personas? To begin with, start with the truth. Embrace it as a positive.

If you have a small but effective team, it means you are agile and efficient. So why pretend you’re a much larger team?

Also, consider your audience and how they might see things. If you’re positioning yourself as ‘innovative’, think on what your audience might consider to be innovation.

If you’re targeting an audience interested in technology, innovation for them might be huge. Technophiles are early adopters. They crave the new.

New might mean working entirely in a system like Slack, or a presentation in Augmented Reality. New will certainly require more than a clunky Powerpoint proposal.

Or, perhaps you seek to build a service around your amazing customer support. In which case, you need to first develop amazing customer support. That means more than your standard customer support.

You can’t just call it ‘amazing’ in the hope that it motivates sales. Well, you can, but you (and your customers) are in for a rough ride.

Because by taking a basic feature, and labelling it as a premium offering, we inauthentically represent ourselves. In doing so, we create inconsistency and inevitable disappointment. Maybe even resentment.

So to develop amazing customer support, maybe we draft a customer promise and stick to it. Maybe we work in guarantees and pledges into our service offering. Maybe we create systems around the work we do, that means we can respond to every customer query within a given timeframe.

That’s the kind of thinking that builds brands.

Brand honesty is not about hard truths – no one cares about your life story (unless you’re in the business of writing autobiographies). It’s about making choices and living up to them. Realising potential, and then going above and beyond to deliver it every single day.

And that’s the truth.

– Greg Bunbury




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