‘Truth’ — The Secret Marketing Ingredient

It’s getting harder and harder to watch the news and come away with any sense of what is “true,” what is “fake” or what is somewhere in between. I can’t help but wonder if this climate of disbelief isn’t going to seriously undermine our marketing practice; especially where the liberty of exaggeration is permitted to run a bit wild.

truth in marketing
“truth,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by Jason Taellious

It’s getting harder and harder to watch the news and come away with any sense of what is “true,” what is “fake” or what is somewhere in between. I can’t help but wonder if this climate of disbelief isn’t going to seriously undermine our marketing practice; especially where the liberty of exaggeration is permitted to run a bit wild.

Watching CNN the other evening, in one of its endless self-promotional breaks, the screen showed a simple, ripe apple. A quiet voiceover explained that this was an apple. It went on to say that perhaps some people would say it was a banana and even some would believe it. But the fact is, it concludes, this is an apple. Facts matter.

CNN is to be congratulated. I cannot imagine a better modulation of all the noise out there, of all the serial lies emanating from Trump, his White House colleagues and thousands of talking heads filling the airwaves with every possible version of the “facts.” The point is that “truth” is so hard to find anymore that Big Brother can broadcast almost anything as a fact and a certain number of people will be willing to swear that a ripe round apple is in fact, a banana.

A blogger, writing some time ago in Balihoo about “roles that truth, disclosure and deception play in the modern marketers’ world” and how they affect marketing strategies and campaigns, focused on the danger not to a single sale but rather the lifetime value of the customer. Rightly, he cautioned, “just how dangerous outright deceptive marketing campaigns would be for your business as it centers around your dependence on customer retention, repeat purchases and ‘trust’ buying.” There is that word “trust” again.

In the Wharton School’s fascinating book, “Driving Change,” the authors analyze why some business partnerships are successful and some are not and argue that “trust is the basic ingredient of any of these networking or cooperative arrangements. You need a good contract outlining the deal; but without trust, the contract will mean nothing.” The degree of trust needed by a consumer obviously depends, to some extent, on the value of the purchase or its use. How are marketers to gain the trust of consumers at a time when skepticism is high and growing and we don’t know whom to believe for what reason.

Not surprisingly, the Balihoo article echoes the lament of marketers everywhere that presenting a totally unvarnished picture of most products would be a complete turnoff for prospects. Imagine an airline promoting economy seating by showing what it is really like when it is even close to full? Or imagine a software marketer telling the truth about how long it will really take to get the damn thing to work properly and to learn how to take advantage of all its bells and whistles?

As marketers migrate to talking directly to well-segmented prospects, a bond of trust can be built, communication-by-communication. And if the product or service performance lives up to its promise, the essential trust can be maintained.

But it’s getting harder and harder. Not only do we live in a world where chaos is increasingly trumping order, promiscuity — personal and commercial — is on the rise. Brand loyalty in the face of attractive competition is a diminishing asset. And despite the continuing surge in Internet purchasing, watching the explosion in hacking and fraud (don’t just think Equifax and the 143 million stolen files; even the CIA and NSA can’t seem to protect their most sensitive data). For how much longer are consumers going to want to complete personal data sign-ins?

There may come a time in the not-too-distant future when the best marketing has more real facts, less hype and when all consumers can agree that an apple is truly an apple.