Imagine for a second you could dictate and decide what value big brands bring to the world. What would be top of your wish list?
- A brand's ability to deliver unique products or services?
- Would you favor brands that strive to innovate?
- Do you long for great customer service?
In fact, none of these items above made it to the top of the list. According to a October 2014 study on authentic brands by my company, global communications and public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe, the No. 1 quality or behavior which people demand of big brands is:
- Communicating honestly about products and services
This is followed by:
- Not letting customers down
- Acting with integrity at all times
We asked people in the United States and 11 other major markets to rate the top 20 desirable behaviors in a brand. Innovation, great products, and having a popular brand were all near the bottom of the list.
What is going on here? It doesn’t appear to chime with our real-world experience of why people buy big brands. Does anyone care if the maker of their shiny new smartphone is "acting with integrity at all times?" According 12,000 people around the world from Indiana to Indonesia, it seems that they do. So how should we interpret the results?
I have been studying these questions for the last three years at Cohn & Wolfe. I have come to the firm conclusion that following the recent years of economic turmoil, consumers are demanding a more open and honest relationship with big brands—one which is mutually respectful and based, above all, on truthfulness and integrity. The world's biggest brands need to take authenticity seriously.
Two big changes in the global economy make this idea intuitively interesting.
First, the post-crash world appears to have become much more cynical about the behavior and motives of corporations. According to the Cohn & Wolfe study, just 3% of Americans, Brits, Italians, Swedes, Spanish, and French people say they believe "big businesses are very honest and transparent." In Germany, it’s only 1%.
The numbers are a little higher in the big markets to the East—India, China, and Indonesia. This should be a cause for concern.
Second, in this world of digital everything, the chances of brands being caught concealing important information are so much higher than they ever were. When I started as a reporter 30 years ago, it was not that easy to find any information about companies beyond what they wanted to publish themselves. And if you did manage to get a juicy tip, the response would often be a simple denial or total silence.
In this digital age, when every citizen with a cellphone is a potential reporter, and data sloshes around the world in vast quantities, brands can’t afford to be quite so relaxed; exactly the opposite, in fact.
Say you are a large retailer with hundreds or thousands of outlets around the world. You have to assume:
- Someone is doing something wrong somewhere
- There is every possibility it will be recorded and sent racing around the world via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.
In this sense, authenticity no longer becomes an option. Either you embrace it, or it will be forced upon you.
Our data tells us consumers everywhere are ready and willing to punish brands that are caught concealing information they consider to be important. Not surprisingly, food quality and provenance are top of everyone’s list of concerns.
But in the United States, we noted a sharp jump—compared with our 2013 data—in concerns over data privacy and security. Edward Snowden and his sensational revelations appear to have made a permanent impression on the mind of the American consumer, and it’s not possible to put the genie back in the bottle.
The authenticity challenge for the major technology brands is increasingly being understood by leading figures in that industry. And it’s massive: how to have an open, honest, and adult conversation about the deal we all enter into on data privacy whenever we sign up for a social media account, or open our new smartphone.
We believe this is the moment for big brands to take the idea of authenticity seriously. Our data tells us people around the world understand and value the concept.
We asked all 12,000 respondents to provide their own definition of an authentic brand in the form of a 140-character tweet. The results astonished us in their sophistication, consistency, and clarity:
- An authentic company has values and morals and stands by them no matter what challenges are encountered.
- True to its mission and values.
- A brand that honestly divulges its practices, both positive and negative.
- A brand that is willing to show its flaws in order to show where it needs to work.
- An authentic company owns up to their mistakes and is honest with customers. Doesn’t sugar coat anything or sweep problems under the rug.
- Does what it says, says what it does.
As a clever colleague of mine likes to say, truth really is the only sustainable advantage.
—Geoff Beattie is global practice leader of corporate affairs at Cohn & Wolfe in London.