Monday, December 12, 2016

Brands and Integrity

I have read Ryan Holiday's book, Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. In the book's introduction, Ryan Holiday says "If you were being kind, you would say my job is in marketing and public relations, or online strategy and advertising. But that's a polite veneer to hide the harsh truth. I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator - I am paid to deceive."

In his book, All Marketers are Liars, Seth Godin explains that "when consumers are motivated by irrational wants instead of objective needs and there is almost no connection between what is actually there and what we believe, presenting stolid factual information about a product is a losing strategy. Instead, marketers should tell "great stories" about their products that pander to consumers' self-regard and worldview. Because consumers prefer fantasy to the truth, the marketer's duty is to be "authentic" rather than honest, to "live the lie, fully and completely" so that "all the details line up"-that is, to make their falsehoods convincing rather than transparent."

One person who was searching for my marketing consulting services indicated that he was looking for a "master of the dark arts." Others talk about manipulation and deception. A relatively new form of marketing is stealth, covert or undercover marketing in which a paid actor poses as a regular person and pretends to love the brand or product in question in a setting in which many people may be using the product or brand and similar products or brands. Sponsorship ambush is a marketing concept in which the non-sponsor brand upstages the sponsor brand to be perceived as the sponsoring brand but at little to no cost. Nike has done this a couple of times at the Olympics in which it successfully upstaged Converse (in 1984) and Reebok (in 2000). 

In this US presidential election cycle most experts agree that the election was swayed by a preponderance of false news which was accepted as true and spread across social media and word-of-mouth by many people. The candidate who was the most knowledgeable about domestic and foreign affairs and who mostly talked policy (functional benefits) lost, while the person who didn't say much of substance but who provoked strong emotions won.

Some say that we are living in an age in which truth does not matter. All that matters is how you make someone feel, even if that is through the placebo effect. Marketers have switched from talking about functional benefits to emotional, experiential and self-expressive benefits.

There is an often repeated quote inside the Washington, DC beltway: "The main thing is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made."

Maybe we have gotten to a point in our history where very few people need much of anything tangible. Rather, they just want to be entertained and feel good. In the 1999 film, The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice of the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the red pill, he escapes from the matrix into reality, which turns out to be quite harsh. If he choses the blue pill, he remains blissfully ignorant of reality in the made up world of the matrix. 

In one recent study of integrity by profession, only 4% of Americans thought that the marketing and advertising industry demonstrated integrity. That was dead last after US Congress, which had a slightly higher percentage of 6%.

And yet, people want to be able to trust their brands. They want to be able to rely on their brands. They want to be able to count on them to consistently deliver on their promises. They do not want to be deceived. They want their brands to do what they say they are going to do. 

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that brands must operate out of integrity. (By the way, I believe every person and institution should too.) While people might enjoy gorging on cotton candy, in the end, they need real nutrition to survive and thrive. Marketers who would deliver "good feelings" through smoke and mirrors but nothing else might reconsider their value proposition. It reminds me of motivational speakers who are hired to pump an audience up but who really say nothing of substance that can be used later. I have heard many of them at national sales meetings, which seems to be one of their favorite venues. 

Style is fine and making people feel good is fine, but an absence of substance will catch up with you in the end. And marketing is much more than deception. I see my role as a brand consultant as one who helps organizations and their brands rediscover their reason for being, what makes them unique and compelling, what they believe in, what they value and how they are uniquely making the world a better place. That is highly motivating to me, to the organization and its employees and to the organization's customers. That's how I roll. I am hoping that's how you roll too. 

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