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Branding The Truth Elected

Posted on July 31, 2004 and read 8,473 times

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There is a lot of talk about truth and fairness lately. Psychotherapist and author Brad Blanton of “The Radical Truth” talks about how it is so much better for both people and business to own up and come clean. Oxfam International; an organization seeking to find lasting solutions to poverty, suffering and injustice; has launched to expose the inhumane working conditions of the workers in the garment industry to encourage fair trade practices globally. In India, IT workers are starting to demand globally competitive wages for their high-end programming contributions fueling the world’s software industry. Last year, retail giants like Nike were forced to take back their factory workers in Mexico because of protests voiced by their consumers on the Harvard University campus. Sony recently renegotiated a better money deal with the Dixie Chicks due in part on the televised exposé on their business practices by CBS’s Dan Rather. For all concerned, it seems that our BS meters are on full alert and for “The Establishment” to play, they have little choice but to play fair. Even in my article “The Brand IS the business Model” I touched on practices in the hospitality and retail industries about bypassing the middlemen to fairer practices which put consumers directly in touch with the actual producers of the goods and services.

So why have business, and especially the business of marketing now focused on honesty and ethics? Weren’t ‘The customer is always right’; ‘I’m not angry’; ‘I hear you’; ‘We’re proceeding according to plan.’ and similar clichés enough to protect the perception of “truth and fairness”? After all, we know more than the masses who buy into “the brand”, and shouldn’t that protect organizations from sharing everything with everyone? I know something, you don’t and I’d be stupid if I didn’t leverage that to my advantage. If I don’t, that’d be crazy, right? The current US administration seems to think so, and it seems to be working for them so far… I mean, after all, if marketers lose their ability to persuade those who don’t know better, than is marketing still marketing? Of course, I’m not exactly serious, but can you see my point?

Information is shifting the power to the people.

It’s allowing obscure individuals to access mainstream consciousness on their merits alone. It’s why a guy like me gets published amongst experts in the field without having a significant marketing pedigree. It’s why flash mobs freak out bureaucrats, and the tolerance for secular viewpoints and alternative lifestyles shake the pillars of the organized religions worldwide. It’s why SPAM meets with stern legislation, be it the unsophisticated junk mail kind or the new and improved contextually targeted kind.

People are increasingly becoming enabled to elect brands that meet their expectation of performance, rather than expectations only set by marketers. Although the dollar sliding against the other currencies may be significant factor, this phenomenon might also be reason why Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA has surpassed Bill Gates in the net worth department. Today, brand marketing seems to be evolving from a communication model of dictation to dialogue. It is no longer about messages from the few to the many, but rather a model of continuous dialogue between the consumer and the marketer, whatever the “consumable” might be.

Might as well get used to it, because more and more ideas to challenge everything from business, society, and management as we know it are not too far behind. Marketers have little choice but to be honest, because in business just as in life, it takes way too much energy to lie and then maintain it. It’s even harder, when what you try to lie about is public knowledge even before you contemplate your “story”. It’s a close guess why loyalty seems to be fleeting and why focusing on developing an “honest” brand is such a huge factor in marketing today. It is allowing people to realize their aptitude and merits immediately up for public election, as indicated by the recent proliferation of teenage entrepreneurs and philanthropists. It is championing the most unlikely of candidates (such as William Hung of American Idol Fame) to celebrity status in the media and why what’s “in” is no longer dictated by either Paris or Madison Avenue, and why you can now get gourmet food at the local supermarket…

While it is also true that consumer fraud is now at an all time high. We’re also in the midst of what many call an unjust war, and despite the availability of information, global epidemics of STDs, AIDs, Chronic illnesses and hunger are spreading at alarming rates.

Religious fundamentalists and book burnings are still a worldwide occurrence, as well as the prevalence of violence against women and minorities. Just because the information is available, it doesn’t mean that everyone is convinced of its validity.

That’s a fair argument, but these points just illustrate that causation and correlation is not one and the same. Just because information is either rejected or countered with opposing viewpoints, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the relevant information and the growing ability by everyone to access it, is not changing things. History has proven our inclination towards the positive and hopeful inter-connected next over the less connective communications of the past. Why else would we elect to make television into a multi-billion dollar industry if we were just happy with the radio?

So what is the truth that is relevant to our inter-connected society? Is it absolute or the most popular version? Consider the recent phenomenon of “The Apprentice” on US network television. Why does just the appearance of what a successful business should be catapult Donald Trump into superstar status? Why has it become the focus of college coursework? Why does the public’s appetite for reality television grow at this point in time? Maybe the elective nature of today’s media, namely Internet integration has something to do with it? Responses from consumers today are immediate, measurable, and clear indicators of demand.

In what seems to be heading towards a real-time demand responsive economy, what then becomes the role of marketing? Demand measurement in real time can have significant impact in the marketplace when you think about it. It can potentially change the way marketers price goods and services, because you potentially eliminate waste and guesswork, and focus on behavioral cues instead. It has significant management and structural implications in business, but that’s a whole other topic to explore. For our purposes, let’s look at it in terms of marketing and branding.

When you know what the consumer wants and when they want it, what then is the marketer’s role? What happens when the study of marketing shifts from demographic guesswork to the behavioral “better guesswork” to the next paradigm of “I know just what you’re looking for and when you’re looking for it; and I’ll try to meet or exceed your expectation right then”! Does the marketer then merely become a facilitator or does persuasion still remain an integral part of that equation? If demand is real-time, doesn’t that also make the role of branding about real-time response to fulfilling immediate emotional needs?

So what’s the final word? Is the knowledge economy leading to a more truthful society? That may be wishful thinking given human nature, but at least it means focusing on securing the perception of truth, fairness and accountability might just make your brand rise to the top of the list. Today the public finds out things like Terry Semel of Yahoo cashing out his $60million of equity almost as it happens. But knowing that your CEO is securing his nest egg well in advance as being uninspiring of the public faith, you can still counter in time with a “Life Engine” campaign. At least for a while to temporarily secure that positive perception. However, with ubiquitous data access points multiplying by the day, and new technologies like RSS (Real Simple Syndication) and others leading the way, that perception is a close competitor with what the interconnected consumer of the future elects to be the truth. Whatever the final word is, I’m definitely not qualified to answer it, I’m just happy to ask the questions. If I were to guess, I’d say that it’s better just to be on the path of what I consider to be the truth and stay on it.

Let’s face it, it’s probably going to get harder and harder to lie to an inter-connected world of consumers. It may be good practice to start telling the truth right about now. It’ll be a whole lot easier when you actually have no choice but to do only that.

Ray Podder is an entrepreneur, brand strategist and designer with a unique focus to help companies outthink their competition. Having been involved with some of the most interesting startup failures, he has developed a sixth sense for what not to do, and recent successes to sense what actually does work for emerging brands. Building on over a decade’s experience as a unique thinker, he helps companies develop inventive business cultures to produce stronger brands with leaner use of their resources.




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