Brands lie. Are consumers ok with that?

In our daily lives, we’re prone to tell ‘little white lies’, often with other people’s emotional response at the heart of it: “Of course Santa Claus exists, honey”, “Yes that dress is absolute fire”, “That’s ok, it happens to all men at some point”.


Hallam on why truth and honesty continue to reign supreme in advertising.

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But what happens when there’s commerce involved? Do those little white lies become a little harder to take?

Breaking trust breaks the bond with your brand

Some of the lies brands tell are of the massive, trust-breaking kind. The infamous Nestlé Baby Formula scandal is a classic example of this and is often returned to whenever Nestlé is found to have lied to consumers again.

Those Naked ‘All-natural’ fruit drinks that are a perennial part of many office workers’ supermarket meal deals? Yeah, not so natural. Not only are they boosted with ‘synthetic vitamins’, but also genetically altered soy.

The world of personal brands are no less immune. Some Influencers pay to sit in a set made to look like a private jet in an effort to give credence to the high calibre lifestyles they supposedly lead. ‘Instagram Reality’ is something that has become prevalent in recent years, but that doesn’t make the feeling you’ve been conned any less impactful when you’re allowed to peek behind the curtains.

Branding is good business

However, sometimes things are less black & white. For example, many companies look to launch products and services under completely different brand names (known as Pluralistic Brand Architecture). If you were more aware that Tesco was an early investor in the Giraffe restaurant chain (no, you weren’t secretly eating ready meals there) or that some of the achingly-cool craft beer brands such as Beavertown and Goose Island are actually brewed by the likes of Heineken and Anheuser Busch, would that affect your purchase decision even if you enjoy the product or service?

Now, you can understand why businesses do this. For branding, perception is EVERYTHING, and what you’re perceived to be can be hard to drop when it comes to launching something completely different. One of the biggest brand launch failures of all time happened when Colgate tried to launch a line of ready meals in the US. When consumers saw that logo next to a studio-shot lasagne, pretty much everyone had just one question on their mind: “Does this food taste like toothpaste?”

That could have been easily avoided if Colgate had launched the product under a completely new and market-tailored brand that appeals to a sense of nostalgic, good quality cuisine the way you remember an older relative making you as a kid.

This is probably the right time to state that Uncle Ben never actually existed, let alone went near a rice field. Our industry doesn’t even restrict this tactic to the food & drink market. Cilit Bang’s Barry Scott doesn’t exist.

So do consumers deserve greater transparency? Do we as marketers and business people owe greater transparency?

Remember to work on perception, not deception

Now before this turns into something similar to the late Bill Hicks’ legendary standup routine, I’d personally say there’s a key factor to remember in all of this: there’s a difference between perception and deception.

Deception is unforgivable. You are trying to win people’s trust in order to build loyalty and repeat business. If that trust is built on a lie that is fundamental to your offering (say, how the fashion industry uses a loophole to claim shoes made in Romania are actually Made In The UK) then all you are doing is sitting on a ticking timebomb that no amount of spin will save you from.

Perception is embellishing the truth. It’s showing yourself in the best possible light, but it’s not a complete fabrication. There’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere. In human terms, you may well spend a sizeable chunk of your downtime wearing ‘loungewear’ (daytime pyjamas rebranded for acceptance) and looking a little dishevelled, but you wouldn’t turn up to a date dressed like that, and you might look to reflect your idealistic appearance with some witty anecdotes and interesting tidbits.

The same goes for commerce. We’ll use beautifully posed imagery to create the right tone, and pair it with carefully considered emotional response messaging. We show a business’ best side - because it’s our job to. But the right type of brand development is still based on a source of truth, and that means that even if your audience strips away the nice veneer we’ve created of emotional-response imagery and carefully-considered slogans, they won’t feel conned. The trust remains.

It shows that despite everything, truth and honesty are still the most powerful weapons to wield in advertising. In many ways this makes our jobs easier - not having to lie gives a better, solid platform to build upon and can spark a stronger basis for engagement. It’s down to us to fight the urge to lie in order to create a more ‘showy’ or initially impactful brand or campaign.

Someone’s best side is still a real side.

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