‘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.

The Trumping of America 

In September 2015, I predicted Donald Trump would win the White House simply because of his mastery of psychology-based marketing. He did not prove me wrong, for better or worse. While I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of Trump’s win, I do want to review the lessons his campaign presents to brands when it comes to understanding human psychology and tapping into our emotions, thoughts, behavior, votes and purchases.

Donald TrumpIn September 2015, I predicted Donald Trump would win the White House because of his mastery of psychology-based marketing. He did not prove me wrong, for better or worse.

While I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of Trump’s win, I do want to review the lessons his campaign presence demonstrated. Successful branding comes with an understanding of human psychology, which enables us to tap into our audience’s emotions, thoughts, behavior, votes and purchases.

I will reiterate Trump’s successful campaign strategies:

“I’m Just Like You”

Trump’s goofy, off-the-cuff persona made him real and approachable. He was not polished, like the politicians he promised to “drain from the swamp.” Instead, he was candid, said things he shouldn’t have, and sniffed and grumbled, like all of us do. He was human.

Follow the Winner

From the beginning of the campaign all of the way to the end, Trump’s stump speeches all followed the same theme: “I’m winning. Here, there and everywhere. And I’m winning bigly.”

Popularity Matters

Life is a popularity contest and any publicity is good publicity. Trump successfully attracted massive amounts of media attention by acting outrageously: People just couldn’t resist talking about it. The media has played along his whole life — even more so during the campaign. His shenanigans stole attention from Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election, and that was the last nail in her coffin. He had won the media war.

Trump Campaign Conclusion

These tactics all cater to the basic fundamentals of human psychology. The fundamentals are so powerful that they trumped reason and rationality in this election. Hillary’s campaign rationale — Who could vote for a person like him — fell on deaf ears and silent media channels. I’ll explain why, along with some insights on how these principles can apply to your brand positioning.

The Importance of Brand Voice

Brands are strong and memorable when they have a distinctive, consistent, relevant brand voice. The cultivation, management and protection of that voice requires a deep understanding of what the brand stands for and what it does not.

Mobile megaphoneBrands are strong and memorable when they have a distinctive, consistent, relevant brand voice. It is embedded in their ad executions across channels, in their public actions and PR, in the engagement with their fans and followers on social media, and everywhere they have a visible presence. It is expressed in their choice of language, of images, of topics, of media and of partnerships, among other things. Brands are strong and memorable when they have a distinctive, consistent, relevant brand voice. The cultivation, management and protection of that voice requires a deep understanding of what the brand stands for and what it does not.

It also needs an organizational commitment and a strong directive to be consistent. Brand voice should flow from a series of strategic, internal decisions that map back to the mission and vision of the organization. And yet, under the strain of distributed marketing functions and real time responses, all too often we see that voice falter.

Commonly, the voice wavers when some rogue agent forgets or neglects the brand DNA or is missioned to attract a certain demographic. Misguided attempts to speak in the voice of the audience or to directly address a disrupting competitor can lead a brand astray. It is painful to watch, and can make recovery difficult.

Consider the immense investment in a brand like CNN over decades, across different media channels around the globe. The CNN I watch every morning on cable TV is filled with political commentary, national and world news, and is the go-to resource for many people for real-time updates when catastrophe strikes around the world. It’s not always in-depth reporting, but it is timely and accurate, and I trust CNN as an information source.

The CNN I know online is dedicated to the news, but incorporates a fair amount of fluff and human interest in the form of sponsored content, celebrity news, and various pandering polls. But still, the news remains primary and the online experience puts the consumer in charge of their content mix so they can choose fluff when they want it. Importantly, the fluff remains segregated from the news to a large degree.

Recently, I signed up for a CNN daily email. It’s delivered with a cheery “Good Morning” from CNN and purports to deliver the five things I need to know to get up and out the door each morning. But the voice is jarringly off for a journalistic news source.

CNN's Five Things for Your New DayThe cutesy, sarcastic tone and intentional use of slang and misspellings to discuss serious world issues doesn’t fit the CNN brand as it has come to mean and this direction erodes trust. To their credit, in the aftermath of recent terror attacks when the news was particularly somber, they consciously adjusted that tone for a day or two.