All about ... Telling the truth

Brands must swap spin for honesty in their marketing.

Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom
Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom

"Truth is the only defensible competitive advantage. I'm not sure why this is controversial, but it's true," the consultant and author Seth Godin says.

Authenticity as a brand attribute is nothing new. But, up until today, it has been one of a set of choices of approach for an advertising strategy. Another option to be considered has long been that truth in advertising was something to be ignored or interpreted "creatively". The role of advertising agencies has often been to find a way to spin the truth or to distract from it.

This was fine so long as the main broadcasting voice to the consumer was advertising-led and, therefore, controllable. This is no longer the case. In our current age (The Age of Dialogue), a brand's image isn't just dependent on carefully crafted messaging from advertising, but on the conversations and experiences of millions of consumers.

Those experiences and conversations are public and broadcast because the internet is public and broadcast. It is hopeless to rely on advertising spin or to talk down to the consumer as if they are a child.

In the 50s, politicians, celebrities and royalty could reasonably expect to control their representation in the media. Now they all have to cope with a constantly changing, 24/7, gossip-fuelled news agenda that they are powerless to control.

They have had to adapt. So, too, must brands. If what brands are telling the consumer doesn't match the real experience the consumer has of the brand, then the advertising has been a costly waste of both time and money.

Respecting the consumer

Half-a-century ago, David Ogilvy said: "The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife." Now she is an expert with a smartphone who can find out everything she needs to about a brand in moments. If that doesn't match what the advertising says, then the brand hasn't just lost a sale - it has potentially lost a customer for a lifetime. The implications of this are enormous.

Experts have been predicting this for a while. In 1999, Godin published Permission Marketing, which advocated seeking opt-in from consumers in order not to annoy them by interrupting their precious time.

More recently, Gary Vaynerchuk published The Thank You Economy, where he argued that the strategy for coping with the fact that the internet and social media had given consumers back their voice was by bringing manners back into the selling, and personalising every transaction and follow-up.

The starting point should not be what the consumer insight team has told the marketing department would be a nice approach for the brand. It is not what the brand owners corporately want the world to believe about it, delivered in an opt-in and nicely thanked way.

The starting point must be what is true about the brand. What cannot be denied about it, delivered in a straight-talking way. Brands that have a process for telling the truth are likely to sell more products, make more money and keep more customers loyal.

At The Economist's Big Rethink summit in March, Chris Clark from HSBC talked about the responsibilities of the marketer in today's economy. His gist was that it wasn't the marketer's job to make advertising executions. It was the marketer's job to understand and know the customer to represent them to the organisation. But, really, it is the marketer's job to represent the truth about the brand, both inside and outside the organisation.

Let's be clear here. This is not a renaissance for the no-logo movement of the early years of this century. Brand truth does not mean disillusioning your customers about all or any brand attributes. We are not calling for utilitarianism over emotion. Brands still have huge power to sway the latter.

Nor is it a call for every brand to find an ethical position. Weaving in a touch of corporate responsibility to the brand will be spotted as marketing spin by the consumer if you are not authentic about it.

The question is how you can use truth to be more powerful than the competition. One way is acknowledging reality - is there a truth about the brand or about the category that is really well understood but that everyone avoids?

This could be a huge opportunity for creating disruption among the competition. It was for the US healthclub chain 24 Hour Fitness, whose "truth in fitness" ad campaign led to double-digit growth for the company. The campaign had emphasised the time and commitment necessary to become fit.

The end of the era of spin

There is the need to take consumers on a clearly signposted brand truth journey, saying it simply, treating them like equals and offering improvement rather than entertainment and spin. The Scottish Government didn't improve the number of organ donations by creating celebrity-based advertising. It simply made it easier to sign up.

And there is the power of leveraging routine. We bandy around the idea of changing consumer behaviour as an objective as though it is easily achieved or even a realistic ambition. Rarely is this the case. What is much more achievable is to switch consumers from one brand to another, or to insert a new brand into an existing routine. This was accomplished for Twix by inserting the product into the great British tea routine.

In five years, we'll look back at the art of spin as a quaint anachronism. With truth-telling as the brand imperative, it is not as necessary to ask for permission to communicate with the consumer, and there is less need to thank them for their attention. In this climate of spin, they will probably thank you.

The truth is the future of successful marketing.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer of MediaCom. Her new book, Tell The Truth: Honesty Is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool, which she co-wrote with the US marketing consultant Jonathan Salem Baskin, is available from 19 April.