In a post-truth era plagued with political scepticism, what chance do brands have of gaining and upholding the trust of consumers?
When I started out in public relations I felt like I’d taken a step ‘behind the wizard’s curtain’. I had achieved enlightenment. I now understood the mythical machine that was driving the world’s media; the careful curation of brand messaging, disseminated via the symbiotic, sometimes strained, relationship between PR and journalist.
From politicians to rock stars, Scotch whisky to soap powder, it didn’t matter what ‘brand’ you were pushing, PR was about communicating a narrative in order to build trust, drive advocacy and maintain loyalty amongst a defined audience. The media channels with which public relations professionals and everyday people interacted were limited and so controlling the messaging was “relatively” easy.
But then something revolutionary happened and it was to change how we engage and communicate forever – human to human, ‘brand’ to consumer. The dawn of the digital era, opened up a world of inter-connectivity and super charged self-expression. Social media was to provide a platform from which every individual and ‘brand’ could broadcast, free from geographical boundary or censorship.
Fast forward 10 or 15 years, and we find ourselves in a Brave New World. Brands and individuals alike are creating, sharing and consuming unprecedented quantities of ‘content’. BUT, where once we believed that knowledge was king and the key to determining truth (and building trust), today there is an argument that we have reached a tipping point. We are fast approaching cognitive overload, fatigued with opinion masquerading as fact, and therefore are beginning to adopt a default position of distrust of the information that we receive. And this distrust is widespread.
Our cynicism extends beyond the distrust of big corporations or brands, long perceived to profit at the expense of the less fortunate or financially astute, to the abandonment of faith in the very pillars of society that we, as a western society, had previously deferred (i.e. governments). This new norm can be summed up in the buzzword “Post-Truth”. I doubt there is anyone reading this who is not familiar with the term, now officially included in The Oxford Dictionary. Their definition: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”1
Despite my continual surprise at the lengths to which Truthsayer-Trump(!) takes his attack on the media, and my shock and frustration at the lack of objective press reporting during the 2017 UK general election, I am less interested in questioning what would build my trust in the political system. Instead, aware of my own post-truth era fatigue, I am fascinated as to what effect our distrust of society’s leaders has had (and indeed will have moving forwards) on us as a brand consuming nation. After all, brand marketing is my livelihood; and constructing a narrative to engage and persuade a consumer of their need for my client’s product, my craft.
Keen to put weight to our agency approach (and in the face of an increasingly complex and overcrowded media landscape), we commissioned research with cognitive neuroscience research lab, THECUBE, last year. Our aim was to better understand how to develop and deliver brand communications on behalf of our clients and ultimately gain and maintain the trust and loyalty of their target audiences.
The first half of the research identified communication trends, including the increased reliance of individuals on peer-to-peer recommendation rather than top-down brand broadcast. The second half unpicked the three key elements required for effective human communication: i) empathy and Theory of Mind; ii) language and narrative; iii) attention and memory.
We looked at how the knowledge of these could be applied to brand communications in order to build consumer trust, vital in a world where trust has become a carefully traded commodity.
Empathy and Theory of Mind, which is the mental capacity to attribute mental states (thoughts, knowledge, beliefs and desires) to oneself and others, is crucial to crafting trusted communication. Working with the right influencer (be that traditional journalist or social media expert) to engage with a brand audience is key. The clear shift away from seeking recommendation from “traditional authority figures” and towards the “everyman” is music to a PR’s ears. Disseminating brand messaging through a third party or peer has always been at the core of the public relations discipline. The once maligned, less flashy alternative to big budget above the line campaigns is poised and ready for its close-up!
However, developing and disseminating trustworthy communication is only one half of the post-digital revolution PR’s day job. The other half is managing the reactive – the 24/7 right of Joe-Public to broadcast his ‘truth’ so long as there is a readily available WiFi connection. The genie is out the bottle and consumers have assumed power. They decide what is trusted information and declare their truth through Facebook, Twitter, comment boxes and digital rating systems. Do I trust that Cheryl Cole uses L’Oreal Elvive? Do I heck. Do I trust Bob from Brighton’s opinion on the gastro pub down the road? Hell yeah! Brands that are forward thinking and embrace the brave new world of communications, incorporating a strong element of peer to peer recommendation, will weather the storm of consumer distrust. They will remain competitive in a global market where choice can sometimes paralyse, rather than empower, the purchaser.
Brands, however, that continue to broadcast their own bullsh*t (a reference to James Ball’s new book ‘Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World’) without sufficient empathy, strong enough narrative or due consideration for what will secure attention, will struggle to harness the opportunities that the digital era can, and does, afford. Those brands will suffer a fate that we can only hope befalls today’s ‘Leader of the Free World’!
This essay has appeared as part of a wider thought magazine on Truth: https://www.thecubelondon.com/portfolio/thecube-magazine-b-truth/
Join Stir later this month for our panel debate: https://buildingconsumertrust.splashthat.com/