To Thine Own Self (And Thy Customers) Be True

In today’s brave new marketplace, something is becoming undeniable: People are not looking for advertising, they are looking for authenticity. They want to support companies that communicate to them on their level and engage them in ways that are transparent. Maybe with all the alternative facts swirling around, there is even greater demand for openness and honesty from businesses, and a deep sense that integrity trumps flashiness. The bottom line: Customers are simply holding brands to a higher standard. Sure, they want quality at a good price, but they want more than value; they want values.

We’ve seen this play out a couple of times with huge brands recently. There’s Pepsi’s ill-fated attempt at sending a “global message of unity, peace and understanding” with an ad drawing from the Black Lives Matter movement, suggesting that if only the cops had a Pepsi, peace would live on. Or how about United Airlines, whose “friendly skies” include the unfathomable act of forcibly dragging a paying customer off the plane like a criminal. The lame apologies emerging from both of these incidents certainly keep our smartphones busy and have done little to quiet the swirling backlash.



We also have the saga at Fox News and the departure of Bill O’Reilly from his show “The O’Reilly Factor” after he was accused of sexual harassment and verbal abuse, and the disclosure of $13 million in settlements paid by O’Reilly or Fox to his alleged victims.

The reality is that where there is money, there is power. Where there is power, there is influence. In the case of Bill O’Reilly, his Fox News show garnered the highest ratings and pulled in the most ad revenue of any cable-news show — $126 million in 2015 alone. O’Reilly, therefore, had influence, apparently enough to believe that he could behave however he wanted to with minimal consequences. For brand advertisers, this is a “put-up-or-shut-up” moment of reckoning. And guess what! They have money and power, too, and it’s refreshing to see them use it to send a message about their values. Fortunately for those of us who are disgusted by the brand track record Fox appears to be building for itself, the power-money-influence equation works in both directions. Sweet karma!

The Pepsi case is another example of the backlash a brand can receive if it’s perceived as being inauthentic or trivializing a big world issue for its own gain. People are left asking, what does Pepsi really value? What does the company believe in? What is it doing to back that up? And United’s initial attempt to shift accountability away from the company to its paying customer certainly didn’t live up to its brand promise. It took a few attempts before CEO Oscar Munoz provided a real apology but not before it cost the company its stock valuation, an undisclosed settlement with the passenger and its entire reputation.

Ultimately, brand authenticity is at its core a search for meaning and connection. Customers want to see the companies they support practicing what they preach and being totally clear about who they are. As such, brands can’t let themselves get out of sync with customers’ actual experiences lest the market start to turn its proverbial back on them. In this age of authenticity, brands need to go beyond truth in advertising — they need to be true to themselves.

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