Honest marketing: integrity sells

Two of my favorite buzzwords right now are “transparency” and “honesty.”

A bit cliché to be sure, but bloggers, news outlets, and marketers have grown fond of bandying these terms about in what seems to be a refreshing change of pace. The obvious irony, of course, is that these buzzwords are less often associated with honest marketing. More frequently they are associated with subliminal messaging, deceptive claims, and, well… bullshit.

But while “honesty” seems like a positive trend, today’s marketers regard it as a proactive promotion rather than an intuitive one. Transparent storytelling isn’t about who we are, as much as a response to current market trends—and who we want to be. And while authentic storytelling should live at the heart of all content marketing, most stories these days seem stranger than fiction.

While the rise in today’s sophisticated audiences may not be news, the numbers validating this fact certainly are. A 2016 Label Insight Food Study demonstrated that 94% of consumers value transparency as important and 67% consider it the manufacturer’s responsibility to provide “complete and accurate product information,” rather than their own.

Likewise, brand loyalty is increasingly a thing of the past, and 75% of customers do not trust the information on brand labels. Moreover, over one-third of all purchasers would be willing to shift from their chosen brand to another if this second brand demonstrated more detailed product information.

94% of customers value transparency
67% consider it the manufacturer’s responsibility to provide

If you’ve been to a grocery store in the past decade, you’ve seen this shift reflected in premium-branded products as “organic” or in labels featuring pull-outs from nutritional information on the front rather than the back of packaging. Some of these shifts were mandated, but many are part of this new “oh-crap-let’s-look-like-we’re-telling-the-truth-now” paradigm.

But this should be demonstrated in more than just the facts we are sharing on our products and services—it should be reflected in the way we are sharing them. It’s design. It’s context. It’s tone. Peep Laja, founder of ConversionXL, put it this way: Decades of ad bombardment and cheap sales tactics have made people uber-sensitive to anything cheesy and self-important jargon.

In a post-click-bait universe, consumers old and young no longer respond to “Top 10 Reasons Our Service Will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” They know it for what it is: more bullshit.

However, giving more credit to more savvy audiences is not necessarily a new idea. Remember Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign or Avis’s “When You’re Only No. 2, You Try Harder campaigns? These were two hugely successful efforts touting brutal honesty in advertising. Likewise, Clairol’s “Does She or Doesn’t She” campaign explored the unthinkable notion that consumers might not want people to know they are using your product. Consider too, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign (and ignore the fact that Unilever is also behind Axe’s advertising), or the rebranding of Domino’s Pizza and RadioShack in recent years. Some companies have even fallen under criticism for being “too honest” (LOL) in their practices. Buffer is one of a handful of companies notably shifting to a hyper-transparency, making their emails, salaries, and website coding available to the public.

So why do consumers seem so highly tuned to mendacity in marketing, when it is clearly not a new notion? What we are fighting today is the shear volume of messages that are out there. Marketing is everywhere, and in the same way that the printing press gave the snake oil salesmen a voice, so too has marketing’s proliferation given voice to a growing number of less-than scrupulous content creators, across a myriad of modern media channels. And when the other guy is lying, it is easy to take advantage of the “transparent” marketing model. Sincerity is sexy, even if you are not necessarily being sincere (e.g. The “healthy choice” menu at your local fast food eatery, paying online review sites to drive positive customer experiences to the top of search results, or any brand touting “fair-trade” practices that are—in reality—anything but).

The radical escalation of media’s presence in our daily lives, the easy access to content-creation and content-sharing tools, the abuse of this “truthfulness” trend, and the weary scrutiny of John Q. Consumer have turned the contemporary marketing landscape into a veritable Wild West (insert SEO.K. Corral joke here)…

So how do we, as content-creators, product-pushers, and service-sellers, respond?
Be Gary Cooper.
Be John Wayne.
Be that enduring voice of goodness that is not fashionably trustworthy, but infallibly so.

Don’t tell half-truths with the facts or images you share. Don’t use content marketing as a Trojan horse. Be honest. Write truthful copy. Kill superlatives and buzz words. And go forth as purveyors of honest and transparent content because it’s your job—not because you have to—but because it’s the right thing to do.

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