Brands are Lies

Last week I was in Atlanta to support Brent Leary’s Social Business Atlanta event.

When Brent called me last year and said he was putting together an event I said “sign us up” without even knowing what he was planning. I trust Brent and have confidence in his ability to pull together an interesting roster of speakers, participants, and most importantly, an audience to engage with.

Trust… let’s talk about that for a minute. The social technology industry has come up with an entire array of words that ultimately just convey the notion of trust between and institution and constituent, or person to person. These words include the ever popular “authentic” but also words like “transparent”, “open”, and “honest”. Whatever you name you give it, it is TRUST that we are talking about and the ultimate objective for companies using social technologies to engage the world around them should be using trust as a currency for influence.

The night before the event the speakers had a little dinner and over the course of the meal I learned a lot about the audience, the market, and my fellow speakers. After dinner and the next morning I put my deck together and assembled my thoughts into speaking points. I began my presentation by sharing this chain of events and then started with:

“Why did I tell you that at 11:00 last night and 6am this morning I put my deck together for you? Well it’s because I want you to trust me and know that what I am saying to you isn’t boilerplate, scripted, or slickly presented, because if nothing else I say makes an impression upon you let it be this, brands are lies, half truths and good intentions.”

Why are brands lies, half truths and good intentions? Keep in mind that I don’t subscribe to the notion that companies are inherently untrustworthy or that the people in a company, any company, are dishonest… I am part of a company, you probably are as well. The reason why brand statements are untrustworthy is that they reflect what a company, specifically those in the leadership of a company, want to believe about their organization, not what the customers of that institution reflect back to them as their values.

50 years of broadcast advertising has conditioned people to not believe what companies tell them is the truth, which is why Edelman’s trust barometer regularly ranks “people like me” as more trustworthy than any institution. As a society we have a generalized trust issue with institutions of all kinds and yes it should concern you as much as it does me because institutions of government, private enterprise, and everything in between form the backbone of society, and the demise of institutions has historically been a leading indicator for the demise of a society.

I have been thinking a lot about the notion of brands lately, but what I have been focusing on is how the communications revolution we have been participating in, also known as social media technology, is thrusting forward a notion that companies and customers need a better way of talking to each other.

Let’s not call them consumers… please, they are people and people have an inherent desire to be treated as individuals. The construct of consumer is something that companies created to group customers together because they lacked the ability to address each customer individually. Today we can reach customers as individual people so why do we need things like focus groups, demographics, and behavioral segmentation?

Well they do serve a valuable purpose, which is to roll up things which are best addressed in the aggregate, like product definitions and advertising strategy but when it comes to customer service and a collection of marketing functions we need to drill down to the individual level and treat customers as individual people.

Another aspect of this that I find particularly fascinating is that customer are behaving in a very different way that in generations past, not only do they have needs that have to be met with products and services but they also want companies to intersect them on the basis of values. In generations past we cared a lot about what the brand symbolized, the fashion appeal of it, but today we care about the values of the people that make up the company. Wow.

Couple this with another observation I have, which is that brand loyalty is easy to achieve but hard to hold… a direct inverse of what was the case even just a few years ago when brand loyalty was hard to achieve but very durable once acquired. We quickly embrace companies and products with a profound advocacy but one slip and a company quickly gets black listed. From heros to zeros in no time flat…. just ask the Komen Foundation.

So what does all this have to do with the idea that brands are lies? Well it all came together for me with something that Dion Hinchcliffe passed around on Twitter yesterday titled “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch“. You should read this in it’s entirety but let me quote this one passage for you.

(…in successful companies) Employees are actively and passionately engaged in the business, operating from a sense of confidence and empowerment rather than navigating their days through miserably extensive procedures and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Just as we need to recalibrate our thinking about customers as people rather than consumers, we need to appreciate that in successful businesses today, and tomorrow’s leaders, the organization exists as a unified body of individuals acting with single minded purpose and empowered with the ability to carry forward on the basis of what is right and wrong for the organization. Wow.