Building Trust, Post-Truth
We live in an uncertain world where people and things are not always what they seem - or what we have assumed them to be. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump have signalled a major shift in attitudes and the Zeitgeist. While commentators focus on the implications for trade negotiations and migration, there are other important implications for businesses and brands. Values that were widely accepted are being called into question – so businesses need to revisit and challenge assumptions about consumer attitudes that underpinned much marketing strategy.
Global, digital and innovative were powerful corporate brand values in the last 30 years. Few businesses didn’t want to be seen as global players, didn’t want to be seen as innovative, and didn’t actively pursue and project a digital presence.
No longer. These qualities have suddenly become questionable attributes for important sections in Western societies. Maybe not the Davos-goers and the metropolitan elite, who still think these values just reflect good business sense in responding to inexorable change. But, for substantial market segments – the less materially successful and disenfranchised sections in the developed world - these values are associated with static incomes, loss of employment and privacy; and a sense that they are losing out.
These people are important. They are some of your consumers, some of your workforce and even some of your investors. Moreover, these people have an electoral voice and can drive political change that has serious impact on business operations and profitability.
Increasing numbers want national and local not global*. Global is increasingly seen as remote and distrusted. It has become a negative quality for those who, after years of difficult economic conditions in which they believe only the rich were getting richer, have started to put personal interest, and the interests of their personal communities, above the global good.
Many of these people feel insecure. So security and trust have become more important for them than newness and innovation*. Trust is a feeling, not a factual quality bestowed by some remote, seemingly self-proclaimed set of experts. Trust is earned by experience and cannot be taken for granted.
And being digital is no longer always a positive quality in the post truth world. Digital cyberspace is the home of fake news and cyber-crime (which has become the fastest growing crime in developed economies). Cyberspace is not a place to be trusted.
So what does this mean for businesses and brands?
In the short term businesses need to ensure that corporate brand values, messages and communications do not risk alienating groups of stakeholders. That you are emphasising attributes you share, that will resonate positively with them.
Businesses need to recognise the change that has and is happening and reconsider how well brands (and business models) fit this changing world. Clearly not everyone has changed their views, and on some topics opinions are polarising. Immediate action should include surveying key stakeholder constituencies to see if social changes are affecting – or likely to affect – any key segments that are important to you.
For a brand (and a company) it is useful to be liked - but essential to be trusted. Being associated with qualities that are increasingly distrusted by any significant group of stakeholders needs to be addressed urgently. You may – for example - need to shift brand positioning to come across as (multi) local rather than global.
Given that the range of opinions (on Brexit, Trump etc.) in many management groups differs from the spread of public opinion, for future success businesses may need fewer leaders and more listeners...
David is the Managing Partner at Hensley Partners, a corporate strategy and branding consultancy
* The Edelman Trust Barometer 2017, surveyed over 30,000 people across 28 countries found that 69% agree “we need to prioritise the interests of our country over the rest of the world”, and that 51% are concerned that “technological innovation is happening too quickly and leading to changes not good for people like me”. See the article here.