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How brands can bridge the honesty gap
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In wenigen Sätzen
- Many brands think they can get away with their honesty gap – until suddenly, they can’t.
- You needn’t plan for every possible eventuality: If you know what you stand for – and act accordingly – you will be ready come what may.
- Defining your stance takes foresight, determination and courage – and pays off handsomely in today’s fast-moving editorial society.
Would you be friends with someone who lies to your face? Exactly. And still, all to too often companies seem to think they can get away with saying one thing while doing another. Some may call it bullshitting. We call this, in polite marketing terms, the honesty gap. Either way, in today’s editorial society, being caught with your pants on fire quickly incinerates the brand equity it took so long to build.
Here’s the thing: When you chop down a forest and plonk your gigafactory in a drinking water protection area, your commitment to healing the planet may well give off a musty – or should that be musky? – smell. And when you praise your riders to high heaven, claiming to put them at the centre of your food delivery service – only to raise hell if they try to unionise for better conditions, you will end up with egg in your face. And finally, if you piously claim to recycle your used wares while sneakily shredding even brand new products, maybe for once, you shouldn’t have done it. The truth will out.
Like it or not, the pandemic has put companies’ actions into unprecedented focus and revealed their characters for what they are. Some have risen to the occasion, acting for the common good. Others have been found wanting, acting selfishly, albeit sometimes unconscionably.
Very few people foresaw a crisis like this, yet Black Swan events such as COVID are set to occur more frequently. Not only is the future uncertain and challenges ever more varied – but, the editorial society has empowered a demanding public: Any company that is not social, not inclusive, not environmentally friendly, but only pretends to be, will be exposed and held to account.
No one can come up with a specific plan for every possible disaster, development or movement. The good news: You don't have to. Companies can build a foundation of values that can withstand any crisis. If you know who you are, who you want to work with and what you want to achieve – and put that knowledge into action with the right structures – your brand can respond on the fly.
Too many brands have panicked under the pressure of recent months – spooked by the pandemic and fast-emerging social movements like Black Lives Matter or Fridays for Future. Some chose the right messages but couldn't deliver them authentically because talk and action, marketing and business, contradicted one another. Others gambled away trust with gauche messaging. Too many companies – even big, successful players – are still stumbling through the fog today, almost two years into the pandemic.
How can you build a foundation of values that will withstand future crises? These are five key things that your brand should now be doing:
1. Face up to your honesty gap
There is often a gap between what a company says and what it actually does: the ‘honesty gap’.
Recent history is replete with cases in which brands have been caught out. Vegan milk brand Oatly, for example, earnestly cast itself as an environmental champion only to be called out by activists for selling 10 percent of its shares to investor Blackstone, which has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon.
Other brands have similarly aligned themselves with social causes their corporate behaviour undermined. H&M and Primark virtue-signalled by launching Pride collections, only to be hit by revelations that their clothes are often made in countries where it’s illegal to be LGBTQ.
2. Get your house in order and have a clear stance
While it’s neither possible nor advisable for all brands to be campaigners or activists, they must have a clear understanding of what they stand for. This needs to run throughout the entire business and be the accepted reference point for deciding the company’s stance on key issues. And make no mistake, this will be put to the test. Last year, Kantar found that 68 per cent of US consumers expect brands to be clear about their values, and Forrester revealed that 43 per cent of people favour companies that take a position on social, environmental and political issues.
Nike is arguably one of the best examples of a company with a clear position that runs throughout its business and communications. The company stood by Colin Kaepernick taking the knee. When, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Nike adapted its tagline to ‘For Once, Don’t Do It’, they had built up enough credibility on the issue of racial injustice to be taken at their word. And yet: recent revelations that the company likely broke the law (never mind acted unsustainably) by destroying brand-new sneakers have lost the sportswear giant valuable brownie points. Which goes to show that the task of closing the honesty gap is never finished.
It’s also crucial to understand what your brand can say authentically. Ben and Jerry’s can make bold statements as they were founded by two self-confessed hippies from Vermont. Even after the ice cream maker was absorbed by Unilever, the company stayed true to its roots. In 2020 it called for an end to white supremacy, and its CEO went as far urging its customers to support the de-funding of police forces.
3. Listen to your audience and act
Audiences are more focused on key global issues than ever before. And importantly, they are more empowered and enabled to share their views than ever before. So it’s crucial to listen to what your audience is saying so you can understand what’s important, define your position and decide whether and how to respond.
Getting this right is not easy, but some companies have managed to hit the mark. Following the George Floyd murder, many companies rushed to act. Lego was praised for listening first to what people were saying and responding accordingly. It pledged to donate $4m to “organisations dedicated to supporting black children and educating all children about racial equality” and announced it would be removing marketing and product listings related to police characters. A bold and powerful move.
4. Move from storytelling to storydoing
Actions speak louder than words. To support Black Lives Matter, Pernod Ricard created an app to identify hate speech on social media; and at the beginning of the pandemic LVMH converted its perfume factories to make hand sanitizer. These actions became the content for authentic storytelling and the fuel for earned media.
The focus on ‘storydoing’ means that marketing cannot simply be an inauthentic layer on top of a business. Patagonia is a prime example of an ethical brand whose commitment to tackling climate change runs throughout its business and underpins its marketing. Its business statement is ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’ and the company donates 1% of all pre-tax profits to environmental grassroots groups, as well as getting actively involved in protest movements.
But storydoing isn’t just about marketing messaging, it’s about marketing practice too. Unscrupulous SEO techniques (e.g. Black Hat SEO tactics), poorly chosen influencers and sloppy media buys which present your brand in the wrong company say more about you than you imagine. This has been clearly demonstrated by recent scandals where advertisers have been caught inadvertently funding extremist, child exploiting, and climate crisis-denying content. In all these examples, household brands have been publicly called out, causing untold damage to their brand equity.
5. Adopt a content approach that bridges the honesty gap
Social media is an incredibly powerful tool. But it must be used honestly and transparently. Woke-washing is quickly found out – often with damaging consequences for both reputation and the bottom line.
But if you have a clear and authentic position, don’t be afraid to join the conversation – lean into it and engage your audiences. And don’t be afraid to show your workings. Share your journey. UK fast food chain KFC has done this a few times, notably when it ran out of chicken and its apologetic ‘FCK’ ad fuelled praise on social media.
L’Oréal saw one of its anti-racism posts on Instagram drowned out with criticism for its sacking of transgender model Munroe Bergdorf. L’Oréal and Bergdorf issued a joint post on Instagram announcing that the model had been hired as a consultant for diversity.
Post-Covid, there is a pressing need for all companies to dig deep, assess what they stand for and to take a long, hard look at whether this is genuinely reflected throughout their business. Now is the time to take action – and elevate social responsibility to a board level business objective.
And there are real opportunities to drive both consumer engagement and business growth for companies that take the right path. For those that don’t, an uncertain future awaits.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Erminia Blackden is Planning Director at the Looping Group, based in London. She is an integrated brand strategist with over 20 years’ experience in brand development, customer acquisition and customer experience planning. Erminia has helped shape brand and communications strategies for leading brands such as BMW, Santander, Nestle, Unilever, the Ministry of Housing and the UK’s Royal Air Force.
Henning Walbaum is a Partner at the Looping Group, based in Berlin. Most recently Henning's focus has been in the automotive sector working with brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Skoda, Mazda and Chrysler.