Belvedere Vodka CEO Makes a Plea for Truth in Advertising

Authenticity is the only way to shore up consumer confidence, Rodney Williams warns marketers at Brandweek

Rodney Williams at Brandweek
Rodney Williams cautions marketers against adding to the misinformation that's already so prevalent in our fake news era. Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

PALM SPRINGS, Calif.—Which of the following statements is true?

1. Walking around in Skechers Shape-Ups will blast fat and lift your glutes.
2. Gargling with Listerine is just as effective as flossing your teeth.
3. Driving a Volkswagen diesel in the past decade meant you were complying with the Clean Air Act in an emissions-friendly car.

Answer: None of the above, though each brand touted these alleged facts in its advertising—and suffered a variety of consequences as a result, including VW’s multibillion-dollar fines and executive jail time for the global scandal that became known as Dieselgate.

It’s these and other corporate “lapses in judgement and ethics” that lead to consumer mistrust of brands and their marketing, according to Rodney Williams, president and CEO of Belvedere Vodka.

Speaking at Adweek’s annual Brandweek summit, Williams noted that people have trouble finding unvarnished information in the current “fragmented ecology” and challenged marketers to live up to the truth-in-advertising ideal and stop overblowing their claims.

“We need to get back to basics,” he said. “We need to reconnect with what’s really true about our brands, be responsible as businesses and be truthful about things like our cause marketing.”

The specter of “fake news” loomed large over his talk, with Williams noting that it’s not a new phenomenon born in the Trump era. It’s actually as old as the news media itself—the legendary William Randolph Hearst was an early practitioner of embellished stories, also known as yellow journalism.

And dishonesty—in politics, government or business—surely isn’t a 2019 conceit. But the cumulative effect of all the bluster, and sometimes outright lies, is gnawing away at consumer confidence and breeding skepticism, Williams said. As for 2020? It’ll just get worse, he predicted.

Against that backdrop, delivering fact-based messages to consumers has become especially daunting, Williams said, because “there’s no real recognized arbiter of truth.”

And competition is more cutthroat than ever, with brands searching for any advantage in a saturated marketplace. As an example, Williams said an unnamed vodka rival slapped the phrase “gluten-free” on its label, aiming for a specific demographic and likely hoping for a wellness-related boost.

“All vodka is gluten-free because of the distillation process,” Williams said of the country’s most popular spirit. “This is how a brand can prey on information fragmentation to manipulate facts and try to create a point of distinction when there isn’t one.”

The session at Brandweek stood out to many attendees for its subject matter and the candid way that Williams approached it. Andre Richards, assistant vice president of brand strategy and management at Delta Dental, found it particularly timely.

“It’s super important that you are mindful about what you’re saying as a marketer and recognizing the implications of being inauthentic,” he said. “It doesn’t just damage your brand; it damages the entire discipline of marketing.”

Because there can be a tendency toward “hyperbole or just plain deceptiveness” in advertising, he said, “the challenge is to present your best self to the marketplace in an authentic and honest way. When that happens, consumers recognize it, and it’s refreshing. There’s a resonance to that message.”

Minneapolis creative agency Carmichael Lynch‘s president and managing director, Julie Batliner, said she sees an opportunity amid the dysfunction for brands that walk the walk. “It’s time to be super transparent and identify your unique points in labeling, advertising and PR. You want to make sure you’re educating the consumer and taking responsibility for your claims.” 

Andrew Almendras, director of creative for global brand marketing at IMAX, said he feels the pain of a jaded public. “When brands speak in absolutes, it’s difficult for consumers to believe them,” he said. “It’s like they’re trying to shove something down our throats versus telling us a real brand truth.”

Greenwashing and “goodwashing” are still rampant, attendees said, and Kathy Sharpe, owner and founder of The Sharpe Alliance, said the industry could consider something akin to the Association of National Advertisers’ GEM (Gender Equality Measure) for ad campaigns that hawk sustainability or social good.

She, too, is suspicious of zeitgeist-y pronouncements, wondering, “Did they just start paying attention to the narrative and putting something in their messaging after it became a thing, or have they been doing the work for 10, 20 or 30 years? If they can back it up with history, that’s legit. But if they can’t, that’s a problem.”

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@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.