Honesty Wins

Posted on May 14, 2007

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In America, lawyers are commonly seen as people who make exorbitant amounts of money for twisting the truth and bending the law. And of course taking advantage of you and as many other people as possible in the process. “Ordinary” Americans won’t make distinctions between the various practice areas of law. Some believe many lawyers will allow just about any means to justify the end. The end of getting rich, that is. So from an ethical standpoint, lawyers are only marginally above the members of La Cosa Nostra.  

It’s not hard to see how this poster would cause hullabaloo in the American South or the Mid West because of cultural reasons (it did when it briefly decorated a parking garage in Chicago recently), but it indirectly points to something that is becoming increasingly important for brands, namely genuineness and honesty. And yet both are noticeably absent in the brand world today, often thrown on the backburner by corporate executive Mr. Ego. N. Pride, master mason of the corporate façade. No, I am not only talking about genuineness and honesty in the context of brand positioning; both these values are critical to the good health of the continuous brand-consumer relationship.

In order to instill trust in this relationship, brands must tell the truth to consumers, even when it isn’t entirely likable, favorable, honourable, noble or for some other reason believed to be damaging to business. Doing so will serve them better in the long run, even if it effects short-term performance.

An often overlooked and profoundly underestimated approach to winning consumers’ trust for brands – because companies have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that consumers are people – is to openly admit shortcomings and mistakes in a genuine way, with a view to make it right again.

Let me give you an example of an “uncomfortable truth” to illustrate what I’m talking about. Instead of hiding behind safe, bland, boring and pointless words such as ‘partnership’, ‘caring’ and ‘relationships’, banks should start to openly admit what they’re about: making money, getting richer. Think about it. Who in their right frame of mind would want to form a “partnership” with a “caring” suit-clad merchant banker anyway? Not me, for one. And do you really think this person would give a jacks ass about your family? Hardly.

The consumer, just like the people in the bank, want to get rich; they want more money. They have financial ambitions. There really is no need to complicate matters further, but there’s fear, lots of it. This powerful emotion thrives in marketing departments, research companies, advertising agancies as well as in the heart and mind of the consumer him/herself.

What consumers will say in a focus group or in one-on-ones when asked about money, are all the things they “think” money can do for them and what is politically correct to say about it. They won’t and often can’t tell the researcher what money “feels” like. Most of the time, that question won’t even be asked in research. In my opinion, marketers with average smarts should be able to identify this grave flaw of most of today’s research techniques. Problem is nobody dares tell the emperor, as sometimes must, he is naked.

It rarely pays to conceal the truth and one’s true motivation for brands even when on a collision course with moral and ethical values of society. Not in the long run. The same goes for any relationship actually. People aren’t stupid; not in large enough numbers anyway. And the truth always finds a way to reveal itself. Always.

As for the billboard above, I kind of like it because of its very blunt message, which is precisely the kind of honesty I’m talking about. These lawyers don’t shun away from the regrettable circumstances in people’s lives on which they prey. No, contrary to ethical codes and etiquette, they actively encourage it in a rather provocative manner. And I bet it’s effective, not in the sense that will get people in functioning marriages to suddenly file for divorce (If that was the case, I would feel very uncomfortable about it), but I think that the targets of this ad, not all but some, are able to appreciate the humorous frankness in the approach, having accepted the fact that someone is going to benefit financially when the towel is thrown in. (According to the law firm behind the ad, prospective clients have called in large numbers since the ad appeared.)

This law firm has accepted the fact that society will never regard them as saints. They’re being pragmatic and frank. They’re not honourably honest, perhaps, but honest nevertheless in a weird kind of way. It’s this self-deprecating aspect I find incredibly disarming and effective in communication. Skoda’s “It’s so good you won’t believe it’s a Skoda” is a great example of a hugely successful, honest, self-deprecating campaign that really hit home with consumers. Admitting to its anything-but-glorious past in a humorous way is what allowed Skoda to make a successful comeback in the car market. In Sweden, Åkestam & Holst have just launched a campaign for Ohrlings Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) in a lovely, humourous, honest tone. It uses the fact that accountants are seen as dry, stiff and incredibly boring people without charisma. Thing is you don’t need those qualities if your job is to get the numbers right, and that’s exactly what this campaign communicates. The headline says: “We have been voted accountancy firm of the year. Yippee!” 

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The point I’m making is that irrespective of relationship kinds, honesty prevails. Let’s remember that as planners, ad geeks, ad freaks and human beings.  

Posted in: Planning-related