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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