How many times have you seen businesses talk themselves up and let customers down? Why do brands continue to lose valuable trust with their customers when “the truth” comes out about them. As a business owner, and further, someone who leads a marketing agency that works closely with many other brands, I’d like to start a serious conversation about the importance of building your brand on authenticity and transparency, by beginning with the more lighthearted topics of online dating and social media profiles, so bear with me, because there is a point!
We’re in an unprecedented era of digital social connectivity. According to Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, about 39% of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online in 2017, compared to 22% in 2009. While we move closer to 50% of all relationships starting online, an article on PhyscologyToday.com states the following, “The truth is that people tend to lie on these platforms. How? First, people directly lie about their lives, which is often an effort to make themselves look more desirable or positive. In a study examining 80 online daters, it was found that two thirds of participants lied about their weight by five pounds or more.”
Meanwhile, according to Statista.com, as of 2019, the average daily social media usage of internet users worldwide amounted to 144 minutes per day, up from 90 minutes in 2012. The same PsychologyToday.com article referenced for online dating goes on to say that, “Even more commonly, people “lie” by presenting an image of themselves and their lives that is imprecise or less than comprehensive, leading the viewer to believe falsehoods. For example, only 18% of men and 19% of women reported that their Facebook page displayed “a completely accurate reflection” of who they are. Most commonly, participants said that they only shared ‘non-boring’ aspects of their lives.”
While it is easy to joke, tease, and make light of this trend, I believe it is contributing to a culture that can easily put your business and your brand at risk. Amidst all the digital connection that we experience and partake in, important behavioral habits are forming that we have to protect ourselves and our businesses from.
I believe business owners, entrepreneurs, and leaders everywhere are being far too easily tempted to carry these online social statistics over into how we run our businesses. It is very tempting to put on the appearance of strength to boost valuation, or to feel personal fulfillment, or to achieve a particular goal. While these things are not uncommon, I urge businesses and business leaders alike to realize the inherent risk that this behavior puts on your brand, and I invite you to explore a different way, a transparent way.
Transparent brands will win in the long run
Dictionary.com has various definitions for transparent, one of which describes transparent as the state of allowing light to pass through something behind or beyond to be seen. The way I would define transparent in the business context is, a manner of conducting business the same in all situations, in executive meetings, company-wide announcements, in front of customers, vendors, family, friends…you get the idea. Let me quickly nip something in the bud for any naturally debate-ready individuals out there (myself one of them). I want to be clear that I’m not implying that every conversation is meant for every audience within your organization, there are absolutely conversations and information that in their full detail, are meant for only certain audiences. That said, if you want to achieve authenticity as a brand, it will never happen if you are afraid to let light shine through into all parts of your organization.
Why again is this critical? As every year goes by, consumers are inherently trusting brands less and less. This isn’t really news to anyone, but not everyone is acting on it. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust? Shares a few glaring statistics such as:
- On average, just 34% of consumers say they trust most of the brands they buy and use
- After a brand displays unethical behavior or suffers a controversy, 45% of consumers said that brand would never be able to regain their trust while 40% said they would stop buying from that brand altogether.
- 63% of consumers trust influencers’ opinions of products “much more” than what brands say about themselves, and 58% of people have bought a new product in the past six months because of an influencer’s recommendation.
- Consumers also said that relatability was twice as important than popularity when it comes to product endorsements—in other words, influencers who consumers see as their peers are preferred to well-known celebrities as any given brand’s pitchman.
Running a brand myself, what I find most difficult about these statistics is comparing them to the social media stats that we looked at initially. That is, when you combine the fact that people (who are the consumers) are fessing up to being completely un-authentic online, yet the very same people (yes, still the consumers) are much more likely to distrust brands than they are their fellow consumers.
Clearly, brands are held to a different standard. And even if just for that reason alone, brands MUST be authentic, or else they will not survive for the long-term. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge magnifying glass on all brands, as their customers watch their every move, waiting for a reason to love them more, or to throw them away and fill their mind with a competitor. So, how do you achieve transparency and authenticity as a brand? Here are a few things I’d encourage you to do in order to make this happen.
- Know who you are – Sometimes it can be hard to really nail this down. Having a clear mission and vision can really help define who you are. Here are two definitions to help you craft effective mission and vision statements. A mission statement is what your organization does on a daily basis. A vision statement is what you’re trying to achieve with the work you do. This exercise can be hard, but stick with it and invite teammates into the conversation to find the answers.
- Be relentlessly consistent – Your messaging needs to hold true to who you are. When brands sway in the wind, authenticity suffers and it becomes harder to maintain transparency. Make sure you have a strong brand guidelines document that you put all of your communications through—and don’t cut any corners. Going the extra mile to be consistent will only deepen your connection to your audience, and improve their ability to recognize your voice in a crowd. The more consistent you are, the more authentic you will sound, and the more transparency won’t seem as uncomfortable anymore.
- Be relatable – Perception is reality —and if your product is perceived as “trend-setting” in the mind of the consumer, then it is trend-setting. Just be careful, in the pursuit of cultivating this perception, it can be easy to lose touch with reality. Make sure you maintain a thoughtful human element to your brand, and allow your customers to walk with you through the ups and the downs. People can’t relate to perfection, so make sure you invite them into a brand story they can see themselves in, while also showing them the great places you can go together.
The TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)
Our world is rapidly changing, and un-authenticity is spreading like wildfire amidst human behavior. Our businesses and brands must take this trend on head-first, and prioritize authenticity and transparency in a world full of fabrication, reality-bending, and truth-stretching. While individuals seem to get away with some of the unrealistic personas they put out—brands will not be extended the same good fortune. Force your brand to know who you are, to be relentlessly consistent, and to be relatable. I promise that authenticity will help you cultivate a brand that is built to last.