Resolution: be truthful with your customers

Resolution: be truthful with your customers

Right now, 2012’s round the corner. Pictures of the year are de rigeur. Two lists of pictures here. Some are worth a thousand words. Others aren’t. They’re here only partly for their worth as pics; mostly for what they tell us about truth and lies. And that message is relevant at any time of the year, any year you care to mention.

The first purports to be a list of images free of the taint of photoshop. But as an audience we’re inured to picture manipulation, so we question the pictures on this list from the start. They look too perfect. They look potentially manipulated. The setup, and the relationship we have with the pictures, is tarnished.

The second list is different. Simply images from our frequently awful 2011. And our relationship with these images is immediately and fundamentally different. They have authority. They are genuinely moving. Because they are true.

And, in a 2012 where we’re looking at a lot of economic stress and business crises are inevitable, telling the truth and sticking to it in a crisis is going to be vital.

Frequently, businesses underestimate the importance of truth to brand perception and overestimate how they can manage their way out of problems. Marketing, PR, campaigning etc can achieve a huge amount to shift, guide and direct perception. But it can’t change things if a business breaks the covenant they’ve made with their consumers and the public. No matter how much they try to spin. Sometimes things are beyond spin, a point made clear here.

Businesses that have broken that covenant in recent times are obvious. They’re all typified not only by a catastrophic event, but by mealy-mouthed attempts to weasel away from the truth.

BP and News International, amongst others, have failed to understand that marketing, PR etc can’t stop us making up our minds. It’s not that these brands will fall. But their relationship with us will never be the same again. Because these businesses imagined they could ‘campaign’ their way out of a problem, rather than truly opening up, admitting colossal error, and engaging in reconciliation.

There are other stories of brand betrayal out there. In the runup to Christmas, we all get a bit too focused on gratification, and businesses that can’t fulfill are always likely to take a kicking http://www.brandrepublic.com/news/1108574/.

There’s plenty of meat at www.mallenbaker.net too – some excellent analysis of how brands that play fast and loose with their reputation and try to gloss over major problems face worse ones down the road. And take a look at how Moleskine managed to annoy most of its loyal base. And who could forget the Netflix debacle? [Editor’s note: of course, looking back, it doesn’t seem to have done longterm harm to the brand…still not a good idea!]

Of course, there’s a distinctly different point here. There’s a big difference between companies that annoy their fans (who, through new social channels, have new ways to gripe) and businesses that truly blunder in the wider world and break a much deeper moral (and legal, or even global) promise.

But the warning is still there – truth and telling it, whatever the pain, is enormously important. Everyone, after all, still talks about the Tylenol recall of 1982 – and how it the reaction enabled Johnson & Johnson to stay on top. It’s given J&J a reputation for truth, and the strength that comes with that, ever since (though they’ve done their best to undermine themselves with more and more product recalls…). Again, a lot of great work has been done on www.mallenbaker.net to look at good, as well as bad, crisis management.

Telling the truth is increasingly important in the very ‘interesting’ times we’re facing. Especially with the tools and awareness consumers can access and which mean that dirty laundry will always, always be found. The effect is to make us both extremely cynical and on the other hand, desperate for truth. Because truth is something we’re desperate for. In business, marketing, and everywhere else. Because 2012 is looking like a year where a lot of chaos is going to play out.

In the debate over truth, we keep talking in the strange, unreal business-speak way about new norms, changed landscapes and ‘constant dynamic change’. And we do that because we want to be able to codify the chaos we’re in. Read order into it. But maybe we just need to think about, tell, and embody the truth. That doesn’t mean we expect the chief executives of businesses to us a lie detector all the time (though not a bad notion). But we want to believe.

In 2012, we can expect belief to be of increasing importance to everyone; in the wider world, in economies, and in business. As a species, we need to believe. So businesses that find a way of expressing simple truths will become even more important. And those that break their covenant with us will be more likely to pay the price.

So really, there’s only one New Year’s Resolution for brands who want to thrive. Worry about cost, productivity and agility as much as you like. But tell the truth, not just in what you say, but through what you do – and if you screw up, tell the truth about that as well. It might just what makes you different, and what lets you survive.

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