There has been a good deal of soul searching of late around echo chambers and ‘filter bubbles’, the demise of expertise and the death of truth. The Facebook algorithm makes our social media presence a Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting back to us our own sentiments and sensibilities. Our information comes from a broader variety of sources, but expresses a narrower range of views. We’re only reading the news we want to read; seeing the perspectives we want to see. Reports go unchallenged; opinions go unsubstantiated; statistics are used selectively; data is interpreted liberally; experts are no longer trusted; facts are no longer checked. Provocation, understanding and truth lie before us on the floor bleeding.
It’s an era when opinions voiced with the directness, candour and bias of a pub conversation are given the breadth of distribution and authority of traditional publishing. It’s the Age of Pub-Lishing, when we have blurred the distinction between pub-talk and publishing; between private and public. And therein lies a societal challenge. On the one hand, we want to sustain free speech and the rights of individuals to express themselves; on the other hand, we want published material to be factually accurate, decent and respectful of privacy.
So how should the world of brands and marketing respond to this new environment?
Well this ought to be an area where brands can help. Because they’ve been here before. In their earliest days brands operated in commercial contexts cursed by charlatans, sharks and snake oil salesmen. Indeed back then brands built their reputations and success on consistency, reliability and responsibility. ‘It’s the same as the one I bought last time.’ ‘I can depend on what it says about itself.’ ‘I have legal recourse if anything goes wrong.’ From the outset brands were sources of trust.
I once visited the archives of one of our oldest high street banks and was struck by the dusty, leather-bound ledger books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On page after page of elegant script, bank officials had certified that ‘Mr or Mrs Smith is good for £x of credit’; and Mr or Mrs Smith had signed their name, or in some instances made their mark, to indicate assent. The ledgers were testament to the fact that banking specifically, and business in general, is fundamentally an act of trust. Indeed the word ‘credit’ derives from the Latin ‘credo’: ‘I believe; I trust.’
In the modern era we may have taken for granted this primary role of brands as ‘trustmarks’. Increasingly we have asked brands to do more interesting things: to suggest and symbolise attitudes and associations; to represent and reflect lifestyles and values. And to achieve these ends, brands have often dealt in artifice and aspiration, dreams and desires. They have on occasion been cavalier with the truth.
Meanwhile we have watched our long-term brand trust scores deteriorate and wondered how we can ever reverse the decline.
Of course, we spend a good deal of time nowadays seeking to define the Purpose of our brands. What might be the broader societal value of our commercial enterprise? Why are we here? Often we come up with quite high-minded expressions of our reason for existence. We want to give people the power to share, to enhance global happiness, to nurture the human spirit. We want to save the babies… Perhaps we should consider more modest, and yet more pertinent, articulations of our brands’ public roles and responsibilities.
Nowadays trust, expertise, knowledge, fact and insight are rare commodities, precious cargo. Commentators talk freely about the world being ’post truth.’ Surely in this environment brands would be doing a considerable social good if they were just consistently honest, decent and true; if they brought simplicity to the complex, confidence to the uncertain; if they delivered insight and intelligence to the intimidating and new. In short, in an era of fear, uncertainty and doubt, brands can re-earn trust through truth.
So if you’re really committed to your brand having a higher social Purpose, why not begin with the fundamentals? Don’t aim at mystification; aim at illumination. Don’t seek to add value; seek to reveal it. Don’t shout about lifestyle; amplify truth.
And when you’ve done that, then maybe your brand can start delivering some of the provocation and challenge that our self-selecting social media diets no longer provide. That would be doing us all a service.