How Aligning With Honesty and Openness Can Preserve Brand Reputations

Embellished reviews, bots and more are leading consumers to doubt brand motives

Was that fake news or an innocent mistake? It's getting a lot harder to distinguish. Getty Images

It’s difficult to think of a time in modern history when the dissonance between the truth and what people want to believe has been so pronounced. By now we’re all familiar with the concept of fake news and alternative facts propagated by the self-interest of politicians, but brands themselves have also been complicit in creating this “truth war” that is in danger of overwhelming society and leaving us doubting everyone and everything.

From targeted advertising following you around the internet, embellished reviews on Amazon and online bots mimicking customer service to Google’s experiments with Google Duplex (an AI-system that so accurately imitates human speech it could therefore dupe people into thinking they’re speaking to a real person), the future could look like something from a J.G. Ballard dystopia. Brands are in danger of finding themselves on the wrong side of history as the truth crash further unfolds.

In fairness, you could argue that brands are only helping to fill a gap or acknowledging a void created by politicians as they call out reports that they don’t like or don’t fit their agenda as being fake. The growth of digital channels and social media has made this possible. It’s almost inconceivable to think of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin D. Roosevelt firing off intemperate tweets in reaction to every perceived slight as the current occupier of the White House does. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which many people sort of understand, and the implications that Russia is responsible for surreptitiously influencing international and domestic affairs in order to destabilize democracy only adds to this sense of paranoia.

Certainly there have been instances where brands’ use of personal data—a happy or unhappy byproduct, depending on your point of view, of the digital revolution—has appeared to breach trust of those who gave it away in the first place. Consumers are the victims, but they’re also partly to blame for the truth crisis. After all, who out of all of us hasn’t used social media to present an embellished image of ourselves that doesn’t really match up to the truth? We’ve perhaps become used to accepting that the lens through which we view the world has been enhanced through filters of our own making.

Brands are in danger of finding themselves on the wrong side of history as the truth crash further unfolds.

Given the powerful combination of these factors, it’s going to get a lot harder for people to know what the truth is or who they should trust to provide it given that there are so many conflicting voices. Social media may have allowed everyone and anyone to become publishers, but instead of promoting a new democratization of information, it’s left us not knowing which sources we can trust. And it’s going to get a lot harder to know for sure whether the news you just saw—or the call you just had—was real or a scam.

Did the news that a rogue state launched a nuclear missile true or was it fake? Was that request for emergency funds really from a family member or was it a machine? Did that phone call telling you were in arrears on your broadband real or was it a sophisticated con? And how can we really trust a brand’s claims that it is cheaper than, better than or guaranteed to?

Brands need to prepare for this death of traditional truth and change their behaviors to make sure that they don’t disappear into the chaotic truth war abyss. But how can they do it?

Well, we can start with a proper explanation of algorithms, for so long a dirty tech secret. By exposing them to proper scrutiny, the truth will be revealed and consumers won’t feel so frightened or threatened by something that seems so unfamiliar and has been deployed without their consent

Brands need to be transparent and open about their business, warts and all, to prove there is nothing to hide. After all, everything is now in the public domain, and skeletons in the cupboard won’t stay there for long no matter how well you think they’ve been hidden away. As well as engendering trust, this may also help a brand or company put things right.

There needs to be a rethinking of owning data. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; indeed, it’s an essential tool to improve services and consumer choice. But it has a value, and brands should offer to buy it at a fair price rather than take it in the nefarious underhand ways that have happened in the past. Personal data is just that: personal. It belongs to people, and they will soon realize it is in their power to take it away if they see no value in its exchange.

Finally, brands need to embrace technology to show that they are still fit to be a mark of trust. To date, blockchain technology, which enables information to be sent and received securely, as no one other than the sender and recipient can alter or destroy the blockchain, has mainly been associated with secure digital currency transfers and data applications. Moving forward, however, it will increasingly be used by a wider array of organizations to deliver security and build trust, enabling verification of products and claims, for example, or providing unquestionable proof a person saw a designated ad for a defined duration. In this way, by addressing customers’ data concerns, it can be used to help build trust and make organizations more accountable.

In this way, blockchain is a powerful weapon in the fight against corruption and a source of undeniable fact. Brands need to explore this and bring consumers with them. People don’t just believe it because you say it; they believe it because their friends verify it. The old saying was that, in war, truth was the first casualty. In this new world, there’s an opportunity for open brands to be the victor.

@leorayman Leo Rayman is CEO of Grey London.