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The crisis of message credibility and impact on brands

Our world is more passionately polarized than ever. Current politics have over sensitized even the most rational, knowledgeable people, creating a new level of acrimony and distrust among family and friends. A major contributor to this divisiveness is the growth of “falsehoods” communicated in the news, especially on social media. The incidence of these “untruths” has reached epidemic proportions, and is seriously undermining the most important values for strong brands: credibility, authenticity, and trust.

The entire subject of “misstatements” and the credibility of claims is very fuzzy. Are such statements subject to interpretation, depending on the words used? Politicians and statesmen all have a brand image they cultivate and present. Are Trump’s recent assertions about the illegal immigrants, the dishonest media, the Mexican wall, environmental hoax, often communicated on Twitter with less than 140 characters, baseless or just nuanced descriptions in sales-pitch hyperbole?

Words do matter. When Kellyanne Conway referred to Trump’s assertions as “alternative facts,” was she inventing a new language? Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkley School of Information, emphasizes that “words must be exactly right when describing statements that fall short of the truth.” There are many expressions (e.g. untruths, falsehoods, unverified claims, wrongly stated, fake news, etc.) that imply a faulty message or claim, but they stop short of the ultimate categorization–lying. To say someone lied suggests a willing deception–i.e. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a lie as “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” And this can be very difficult to prove. Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior Vice President, wrote that “the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.” With this in mind, news organizations run an inherent risk of being seen as taking sides.

Accusations of lying for all politicians, even without irrefutable proof, can be a killer for their brand integrity. Bill Clinton’s legacy, despite many accomplishments, will always be tainted by his nuanced claim about “not having sex” with Monica Lewinsky, and of course the perception of Hillary as a classic liar, fueled by Trump, crippled her pursuit for presidency.

The net impression of any claim that is perceived as “untrue” has moral and practical consequences for branding. Most Americans have a deep mistrust for the establishment, politicians, and even advertising, but the current divisiveness that dominates our news every day has increased the overall skepticism in our society. Social media and its inclusion of “fake news” has become a catalyst for this credibility crisis. A recent BuzzFeed report found that the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook about the election were shared 1.4 million times, more than the top 20 real news stories.

Meanwhile Gallup reported that trust in mass media for reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly has plummeted to just 32% among Americans, versus 50% ten years ago. The danger is that when Americans don’t trust verified news sources, they become more likely to trust those that present a false narrative. A related reason for this declining trust is the emergence of “native advertising”, sponsored articles or videos that resemble traditional editorials. A survey in 2016 by Radius Global Market Research among 1,212 adults revealed that:

  • 54% of respondents felt deceived by native advertising
  • 77% did not interpret native ads as advertising
  • 44% were not able to correctly identify the sponsor of the native ad they read

Despite the rise of fact checkers in many news organizations, the pervasive doubts about the credibility of any brand message/claim, political or marketing, represent a serious threat to the health of many brands. Transparency is crucial for any brand, and some noteworthy companies have even taken the initiative to enhance the perceived value of their brand and strengthen their bond with customers. For example:

  • Nestle protected its brand integrity when it removed artificial flavors and certified colors from more than 250 products in 2015, enabling them to legitimately claim “no artificial flavors or colors” on all their packaging.
  • CVS announced in 2014 that it would remove all tobacco products from its 7,600 retail stores. Although this cost CVS $2 billion in annual sales, it was “the right thing to do” and enhanced its perception as a trusted health provider.

In summary, here are some steps that will help restore the trust level of any brand:

  1. Do not make excessive claims that will create suspicion, and be prepared to back every claim with clear, irrefutable evidence
  2. Facts alone may not be enough. How you organize and present the facts is just as important.
  3. Don’t forget the power of emotions, which Trump proved to be essential, and ideally develop a fact-based story with emotion to captivate people.
  4. What a brand stands for, its value and integrity are critical, but must also be consistent and reflect the passionate desires of its audience.

The hallmarks of a strong brand are credibility, authenticity, and trust. Promises must be delivered. Brands are in serious danger today as the growing frequency of invalidated messages continues to erode these fundamental values.

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is an experienced business development and branding professional with a successful track record introducing new products and services, expanding into foreign markets, re-positioning products, and facilitating ideation sessions. Jay has effectively applied proven marketing and branding principles from his background in the consumer goods industry to other industry sectors, including B2B situations. Jay’s career began in consumer packaged goods and then expanded into household products, beverages and publishing. His first company was Richardson-Vicks (now part of Proctor & Gamble), where he held new product positions in New York and in London. He continued his new product responsibilities for Arm & Hammer products at Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer), then VP Marketing of the wine/champagne division of Seagram, and finally VP, Director of Marketing at Newsweek. Gronlund started The Pathfinder Group in New York in 1990, an international business development and brand consulting firm. Related to this, much of his work today involves re-positioning brands, ideation sessions and marketing workshops, with a primary focus on emotional branding, especially building brand trust for clients. Jay has also been teaching a marketing course at NYU since 1999, “Positioning and Brand Development". Jay recently wrote a new book, “Basics of Branding," reflecting his NYU branding course and professional experience. He has also published several articles on diverse marketing topics: “5 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session," “What B2B Marketers can Learn from B2C," “Employer Branding," “Customized Marketing for Tomorrow’s Leaders," “Sharing and Implementing New Ideas Across Borders," and “Working with the New Russians”, “Word-of-Mouth Marketing for B2B Situations," “The Future of m-Health” and “How to Build ‘Value’ for Healthcare Brands in Emerging Markets." Jay Gronlund is a graduate of Colby College and has an MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth College.

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