Honesty is the best policy

The internet has brought an end to the days when brands could give off the appearance of authenticity without being genuine, says Chris Ingram

Much is made of “transparency” these days. There is a drive to introduce increasingly tough legislation to make companies more open and honest. It hasn’t needed many pictures of top executives in the US being led away in handcuffs to concentrate the minds of CEOs.

A clear example of this in marketing sector Interpublic Group’s decision to rebate all media surcommissions to clients, uninvited, even though it involved many tens of millions of pounds. The fear of IPG’s board was that these hidden commissions might be seen as illegal and they didn’t want to take any chances. This would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.

But the main driver for transparency is not legislation, but the Net. A mass of information on product and price is now available to all within a few clicks. Add to that the explosive growth of social networking and its ability to create (and destroy) brands far faster than any campaign, and it’s clear there really is no hiding place now.

What are the implications? Whatever you do, it will probably be found out. For big companies that means hiring more lawyers and making more out-of-court settlements. Consumers will spot cynical cons – not only the dishonest and exploitative, such as premium line phone calls, but also the wild over-claims and the plain annoying. So always vulnerable is the campaign used to paper over the cracks of a product or company, showing what the marketing and ad agency want the brand to be rather than what it really is. Consumers increasingly want to send up these messages and are now able to recruit millions of others within 48 hours to join in the fun.

If attempts to control communications are now working much less well, is the answer, as Procter & Gamble chief executive AJ Laffley proposes, to accept that the world has changed, to let go and empower consumers? This involves listening, really listening – and responding.

Instinctively, this feels right, but the process has to start before then. Apart from the need for more integrity, there is a great need for authenticity. “Authenticity” is not new, but it is interesting that in marketing it usually means “looks authentic” or “feels authentic” and not “is authentic”.

Kipling Cakes launched with the line “Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes”. Not only was there no Mr Kipling, but they were emphatically not exceedingly good cakes! Would that launch have succeeded now or would it have been destroyed by an internet-driven chorus of jeers, as was Dassani?

A few years ago, BP put flower petals around its logo, spent a limited amount on alternative energy aids and repositioned the brand as “Beyond Petroleum” rather than British Petroleum. The “beyond petroleum” line is now exploited by critics in the context of the Alaskan pipeline and Texas refinery disasters.

These are just three examples of where brands sought the appearance of authenticity and not genuine authenticity. Few companies can afford to feel smug at a time when the smallest slip can be immediately magnified. Achieving genuine authenticity is tough – especially for big, established companies. The offer must be attractive and compelling to commercially significant numbers of people, as well as being authentic.

So the first thing is to gain a deep understanding of the company, its culture, skill sets and market position. This sounds easy and obvious, but since more than a third of the projects we handle are in this area, it is evidently not the case.

Having established the DNA of the brand, and a real understanding of the market, the task is to find a differentiating and compelling idea rooted in the reality of the company which everyone feels to be wholly credible. That proposition then needs to be communicated at all levels internally and externally. That’s what authenticity is about in the commercial world.

But that’s not the end of it. If you want your brand to stay authentic, the ill-fitting line extensions that are churned out for short-term volume gains have to be forgone.

Clearly sacrifices are involved and this is not a route for the faint-hearted. It also needs to be led from the top as it requires a truly integrated approach across all functions. So who should drive this for the busy CEO to ensure that the brand is truly authentic?

It seems to me that opportunity knocks for marketing directors.

Chris Ingram is founding partner of Ingram

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