As we start to expect less of our governments (step forward Gove and Trump), we need to expect more from our businesses – CEOs are now required to create a positive impact on the world, not just the balance sheet. But are brands stepping up to this role, or just getting better at telling a good story? Are our demands for truth, value and honesty from businesses letting politicians off the hook? Are brands interested in making money or shaping the next generation?
Over the past few months, my disbelief and despair at the state of politics, both here and in the US, has grown. From the Leave campaign’s broken promises to Donald Trump’s penchant for a little white lie, it sadly seems that we really are now living in an age where myths become truths, deception is accepted, and fact rejected.
We gave little more than a shrug when, shortly after winning the referendum, the Leavers took back their promise to spend an extra £350m a week on the NHS. And we seem to care less and less that Donald Trump lies almost every time he opens his mouth.
Take it with reluctant acceptance or gleeful delight; the nature and value of honesty (and by association ethics) in politics has shifted. It really does seem that Michael Gove was right – we’ve had enough of experts – so we may as well forget about the truth too.
Working in brand and marketing, for me there are two important learnings: firstly, reality is what we want it to be – we all have our versions of the truth, and flock towards those who reinforce them, even if the actuality is somewhat different.
Secondly, the rise of anti-establishment thinking and political populism leaves us with a need (and businesses with an opportunity) to step up and lead the way towards a more diverse and inclusive society.
Reality is what we want it to be
We’re happy to accept our version of the truth. Research has shown that it’s more difficult for us to challenge what we already know than to reinforce it. That’s why a little white lie can go an awful long way. As long as it doesn’t offend what we believe and truly value, we tend to be fine with it.
There’s no doubt that in a time of globalisation and digitalisation, when social media shapes perceptions and drives behaviour, businesses can’t afford to get away with what they may have used to. If they try, they can end up in big trouble. Just ask VW – you can’t hide something forever, and it really isn’t worth it.
In part, this change has driven a huge growth in small artisan and craft producers that reflect a more authentic reality. But, it has also spawned a plethora of copycat brands and M&A deals where big corporations have captalised on the trend – the majority of which we seem to be fine with.
Look at Innocent – the poster-boy for everything that’s good about FMCG branding. Small, independent, purpose-driven: a real underdog. That is, until they sold out to Coca-Cola. And Camden Brewery: icon of the craft beer generation – sticking it to the big boys and transforming the beer market… until they sold out to AB Inbev. Neither deal has fundamentally altered the way we think about these businesses and brands – the story is still true (at least as much as we need it to be).
In general, just like in politics, we don’t seem to care that much about true authenticity as long as we’re getting a clear, relevant and consistent experience, day in day out, that doesn’t offend and doesn’t damage. We’re not giving up on sipping our Starbucks, searching on Google or playing on our iPhones just because of a few tax avoidance stories – the experience is too good.
We see what we want to see, believe what we want to believe and assign our own truths to brands and businesses just like we do with politicians. If we like what they’re saying: a good story told well and repeated often enough will become our reality.
It’s time for business to step up
At the same time, it’s fair, and perhaps more optimistic, to say that businesses have a genuine opportunity to go further and become true leaders in shaping the future of our society.
Perhaps as we expect less of our politicians, we can start to expect more from our business leaders. According to Edelman, we trust businesses more than we trust governments (and that divide is growing). Moreover, we also expect businesses to take the lead when it comes to societal issues. In other words, CEOs are expected to create a positive impact on the world, not just the balance sheet.
This comes back to setting and delivering on a clear brand purpose. Get it right and it’s not just of value to society, it’s of value to business – Unilever reported recently that their products with purpose are growing at twice the rate of the rest.
Within this context, it’s perhaps less surprising that politicians are able to exaggerate, conflate, and even fib their way to victory. They don’t need to lead by example if businesses can do the job for them. The challenge for business leaders is to step up and fill this vacuum. Because, as Edelman also highlights, whilst we expect CEOs to take the lead, we also don’t really know who they are.
It’s time for that to change. Business and brand-owners have the opportunity to be the standard bearers for society, shaping the future for the next generation by creating products and services that make more than just money. Their brands may be transparent, authentic and honest. Their leaders must be. Let’s hope they realise it.