While science has provided us with an easier exit from the pandemic than we could reasonably have hoped for two years ago, a pushback against “truth” has never been more apparent. The happily vaccinated do not take to the streets to protest, but those who don’t trust the vaccines, those who aren’t sure they really believe in Covid-19 at all, take to the streets.
Online, things are even worse. For the past decade, we’ve seen steadily rising amounts of misinformation online. Who, in the heady early days of the internet, would have predicted the founding of organisations like First Draft to counter lies online? Or a US government official happily talking about “alternative facts”?
This isn’t just a crisis of truth, this is a crisis of trust. People trust YouTubers more than scientists, indie websites more than mainstream media. They twist their reality towards their values, rather than the other way around. It is, perhaps, a transient stage, as the old gatekeepers break down, and the new information ecosystem is still in a nascent state.
As the 2022 Fjord Trends report puts it:
It has been suggested that, over the past 18 months, trust has been so tested that we’re experiencing “Information Bankruptcy” — a state characterised by record-low levels of trust in all information, alongside soaring fears around job security, personal safety and autonomy, and societal matters.
At a government level, this means hard choices between vaccine mandates, which erode personal liberty and breed distrust, and information campaigns, which can ease vaccine hesitancy, but will never change everyone’s minds. But what does this era mean for business?
Marketing in the age of misinformation
How can we tell the stories of our products in an environment where the basics of trust seem very tenuous? How can we build trust in our products and services, when distrust of existing narratives is rife? These problems are urgent, not just for the sake of our politics, but also for the Metaverses we’re building. Porting the issues of this world into our digital spaces is not an attractive proposition.
How do businesses navigate an environment where truth has become relative, trust diminished — and values a source of polarisation?
Inevitably, choices will have to be made. In an age of polarisation, some of the values you chose to embody in your product will be alien to at last some prospective customers. But if the only alternative is making products so anodyne that nobody cares about then, then what choice do you have?
If you are forced into making a choice, you better be certain your choices stand up to digital scrutiny.
Despite the wise words of Obi-Wan Kenobi that things can be true “from a certain point of view”, what works for a fictional Jedi master a long time ago, won’t work for a business today. A lie erodes trust, even if seeking to justify it. And then the internet is very good at allowing people to both discover the truth, and to spread it.
If you’ve never had to deal with a grassroots protest movement, you should count yourself lucky. From property developers to large multinational conglomerates, savvy consumers are getting good at puncturing marketing hype that doesn’t match up to the lived reality of the business. And they have the digital tools to be highly effective. And they can be frightening effective when government starts taking notice.
This isn’t just about customers. Even in the pre-Covid days of NEXT 2019, we were talking about how important business purpose was to millennials and Gen Z in the workplace. For them to believe in your purpose, there must be trust. And trust is built on a foundation of truth.
All of which means: give answers, and honest ones. If elements of your products aren’t sustainable or recyclable, explain what you’re doing to improve them. Hidden truths that could negatively impact your business are a risk. You need to know what they are — and plan to address them.
The first step to surviving this age is a radical approach to truth within the company: know where you’re vulnerable, and start addressing it. This is defensive thinking in its purest form. Address that, and you’re in a better position to share the truth with your customers.
If we may reclaim one phrase from the Cluetrain Manifesto, that bible of the early web utopians, it’s that “these markets are conversations”. As the Fjord Trends report puts it:
Conversation is a natural part of the human experience—it’s how we share and find out information, how we frame who we are, and how we grow and learn. We believe brand conversations with their customers might evolve and be used to structurally solve the challenge of providing the right answer at the right time.
One of the characteristics of the current crisis in trust is a distrust of authoritative voices. (One can’t help but wonder about how the World Economic Forum feels about the fact that their thoughtful contribution to how the pandemic might change society — The Great Reset — has been co-opted into the heart of a conspiracy theory.)
Trust isn’t built by statements: it’s built through dialogue. Through conversation. This inevitably impacts on aspects of your business, from physical touch-points where your staff encounter your customers face-to-face, to your social media channels.
Fjords Trends again:
People expect to get answers at points of interaction with the product or service they want to buy and at the point of purchase. Brands have to know how to conduct that exchange at those moments.
If you know the truth of your business, and where the touchpoints are, you can start to build trust. But trust is a process, and an ever-lasting one. And maintaining it is so much easier if your company can clearly articulate its values.
Values are always going to be a source of tension within a business. Should all staff share the same values? Of course not. People can support different political parties, follow different sports, or even take a position of what type of superhero film they like — if they like them at all.
However, at some level, brands are narratives. If you or your staff don’t buy into the fundamental values-based narrative of your brand, you are unlikely to be a valued contributor to that process. And that raises some interesting questions: what are the values of your business?
For increasing numbers of people, “to be profitable” is not enough. A value statement should include the idea that a business needs to be profitable to survive: but it is not enough.
Let’s take an example: Tony’s Chocolonely. Its purpose is not to make the best, or the most profitable chocolate — although both are among its aspiration set. No, its founding value was to drive slavery out of the chocolate supply chain.
How? By building both trust and truth into its supply chain and marketing. It demands trusting relationships with its suppliers, that provide a transparent truth about where their products are coming from, and how they are produced. And they pay that trust and truth forwards in their marketing, seeking to reassure and build a relationship with its customers.
Define your values, stay true to them, and you can communicate them to your colleagues and customers — and earn trust along the way.
These markets are conversations
There are two schools of thought on marketing:
- Marketing as pixie dust
- Marketing as an integral part of the product process
In the “pixie dust” approach, the business provides a product, and the marketers take it to, well, the market. While you can embed trust, truth and values into that process, it’s retrofitting or (at best) drawing out the praiseworthy parts of the process. But, because it’s not fully integrated into your business systems, you risk getting caught out in spin.
The internet will make you regret that spin very quickly indeed. And that’s where the trust erosion begins, when your truth fails to align with your stated values.
Surviving in the age of misinformation is a whole system challenge. Truth must flow within the business, so you can align with your values. Only then can you communicate these truths to your customers, and build the trust you need for a sustainable business.
Here’s how this stacks up:
- Truth starts at home. Do you really know what’s happening in your business? Make sure people aren’t afraid of communicating bad or disappointing news because that’s the only way you’ll incentivise truth.
- Trust comes from communicating provable truth. An equation, if you like: Trust = Truth + Proof. Your internal communication of provenance, supply chains (them again!) and data handling have to prove what you say they are to withstand an increasingly sceptical public.
- Values are the beginning and end of the cycle. You need to be able to define your values clearly, to communicate them inwards to the company, and outwards to the customers.
None of this is easy. All of it may be necessary.