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Who can we trust to be truthful?

26 Sep 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
Who can we trust to be truthful?

Jan Gooding explores the importance of brand trustworthiness in world of increasing dishonesty

A few weeks ago, I was interviewing candidates for a CEO role. We were discussing the huge concern we shared about the rise of political and religious extremism across the world.

He made a remark that really stopped me in my tracks.

‘When I was a boy my mother told me that the facts were the facts, but I was entitled to my own opinion about them. Now people choose their own facts too.’

I found it absolutely chilling.

The facts matter

For those of us who believe in using evidence, data and insight to support our arguments, it is like trying to walk in the middle of an earthquake. What do we do when we cannot even rely on the ground being still?

As leaders we need to think about this. Deeply.

It matters if people can no longer tell the difference between a truth or a lie. It is a concern if arguments are to be made purely by reinforcing existing beliefs and without regard for the facts. And it raises important questions for those of us who think that ‘trust’ is a vital component of a brand.

Political discourse is swirling with falsehood

Of course, this issue is particularly acute in the world of global politics.

David Ogilvy said once that ‘Political advertising ought to be stopped. It's the only really dishonest kind of advertising that's left. It's totally dishonest.’

I suspect he would be astonished at how much of it goes on which is not generally visible and therefore remains unchallenged.

People want to know who to trust

I ask myself constantly whether I am doing enough to stand up against this era of falsehood and fakery.

There are times when I find myself in a nasty Twitter spat, and I wonder whether I am right to go silent, rather than dignify some hateful discourse with a response. Or whether I should really go for it and not let the outright lies sit there unchallenged.

I try to spend my time and effort where it will most count and make a difference, aware that goading opponents into exhausting and energy sapping debate is in itself a tactic.

People do actually want to know who to believe and trust, and their behaviour will be influenced by it. This is important territory for brands, and the organisations and leaders that sit behind them, to leverage.

Our system of voluntary regulation is vital

It is the mantra of the Market Research Society that ‘evidence matters’. That is because reliable information underpins our business cases, provides the insight to seek new markets and grow our brands and persuades customers to believe our claims.

As marketing leaders perhaps, we have a particular responsibility to resist the growing trend for unsubstantiated claims, dodgy research methodology and allowing lying to go unchallenged.

I have been impressed by the ASA continuing to stand their ground in the support of responsible advertising and being increasingly proactive in the monitoring of activity on the internet.

But of course, it is incumbent on all of us to also invest in and protect the resources provided by the Market Research Society who set our professional standards, whilst also providing education and advice to the research sector. Both bodies are an increasingly important and valuable part of our industry ecosystem.

People expect marketing people to be active players

This summer I watched in fascination at the pictures of Extinction Rebellion invading Cannes this year and taking their message directly to some of the most influential people in our industry. Apart from observing the obvious discomfort it caused for advertisers to be confronted directly like that.

It shows that people think our industry really matters. And they are right. We do.

I was grateful to Phil Smith, Director General at ISBA, for pointing out the AdGreen website to me. It has been established to make more sustainable production explicit. Started in 2014, it has ‘five easy steps’ that can be taken, from making scripts more sustainable in the first place by not requiring foreign travel, through to thinking about the materials used and how to recycle and compost as much as possible afterwards.

Working together

Wouldn’t it be great if the industry set a target for complying with their suggestions and publishing the number of brands who have achieved compliance?

And it makes me wonder what else we should be leading on at a national level. Our industry made the ‘pack shot’ famous. Packaging is a vital element of the brand experience – effectively an ad at point of sale. Of all people should we not be the ones setting out the ‘5 easy steps’ to sustainable packaging?

The role of brands

I remember being taught that brands had personalities. These days I think brands have to have character as well. When I worked at Aviva this was a constant battle. Consumers forever told us that they didn’t trust us to put their interests ahead of our own.

No matter how often we talked about ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘treating customers fairly’ it was very hard to get over some of the major scandals that have swept through the industry and still lived strongly in people’s minds.

Ben Page, CEO at Ipsos Mori drew my attention to the European Values Study, which shows that there is evidence that the internet and social media remains significantly less trusted as a source of information than more traditional media.

According to a 2018 Eurobarometer study over 60% of people said they trusted the news they receive from the radio, television and printed news. But only half trusted news online, and just a quarter news from social media. That should make us all pause for thought as we consider where we place our advertising messages. Particularly if the brand in question has a job to do to build the confidence people have in it.

So how do we do show we are trustworthy?

The most useful framework within which to navigate the relationship between purpose, communications, leadership and trust is that of Trustworthiness.

Academic research confirms four principle drivers to build trustworthiness in an organisation. Honesty, Competence, Reliability and Benevolence, each of which can be made tangible for leaders seeking greater trustworthiness between stakeholders.

Honesty is about words and actions matching up.

Competence means your products and services must work.

Reliability is delivering what you said, when you said you would, and providing value to customers.

Benevolence is ensuring that nothing you do should do harm to the planet or people.

Actions speak louder than words

It sounds obvious - but it isn’t easy to do. All these drivers relate to behaviour that should be tangible and possible to monitor and track. And, as usual, what we do is so much more important that what we say.

Brands provide a stamp of quality. It is their most fundamental reason for being and we should equally ensure that consumers have confidence in the efficacy of what we offer. As marketing leaders, it is incumbent on us to resist the current climate of falsehoods and remain committed to the truth of the evidence that underpins our work.


Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.

@Jan_Gooding

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