May 17, 2012#

“Truthiness” in Advertising

Advertising and truth are rarely two words you find in the same sentence.   That’s because advertisers, much like politicians, are better known for ignoring or, at best, stretching the truth, rather than for telling the truth.   It’s no surprise then that consumers are running away from ads, now more than ever, and turning to their friends for brand advise, with more ease than ever thanks to social media.

Yet fear not.  Herein lies the opportunity.  According to Sue Unerman and Jonathan Salem Baskin, co-authors of Tell the Truth:  Honesty is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool, “truth” can be your ultimate winning marketing strategy.

I’m not sure this is a new idea, but it’s a good one that bears reminding, particularly in the age of what Steven Colbert terms “truthiness,” where people are increasingly comfortable combining just a tiny bit of truth with a whole lot of spin.

The book prescribes eight truth-enrichment guidelines that together will help make your brand more trusted and ultimately more successful.

1) Acknowledge Reality

Understand the reality of your customers’ lives, and the reality of your company’s actions, and address them directly.  24 Hour Fitness faced the harsh reality that over 70% of people who join their gyms quit within a year.  So they stopped promising perfect bodies in their ads (blatantly untrue) and started helping people meet reasonable health and fitness goals.  When Mobile Me bombed, Steve Jobs stood up and said, “it didn’t work.”  Course, Steven Jobs was Steven Jobs.

2) Deliver Real Change

When you say you want feedback from consumers, mean it, act on it, and show them the tangible result. Fiat invited consumers to crowd-source a new car.  Of course, it never got built.  It was a marketing gimmick.  Would you invite your entire neighborhood over to architect the new addition to your home?  Conversely, The Guardian newspaper in the UK invited readers to identify and research stories of interest to them, but only if they were experts on the subject, otherwise no thanks.

3) Build Truth

We all know truth the minute we see it.  It’s one of our inherent capabilities as a semi-evolved species.   We’ve pretty much always got our radar out for it.  So, Unerman and Baskin argue, as a marketer, why not deliver lots of little truths that will get people nodding their heads, as opposed to trying to change intractable minds.   Case in point: Tums advertising features food slapping people in the face, supported with the tagline, When Your Food Fights You, Fight Back.  Get it?  Of course, you do.  We all do. Because Tum’s is tapping into a simple truth we understand and believe.

4) Co-Announce

Legitimacy can often come from the company you keep.  Think of it as truth by association.  Green Works was co-created by Clorox (not the first company to come to mind when you think about environmental concern) and the Sierra Club (the first organization you probably DO think of when you think about environmental protection).  What’s more, the two companies co-market Green Works and share in the profits which makes the brand’s environmental credentials all the more credible.

5) Be Close

Support the way people want to use your brand, not just how you want them to use it.  After all, they bought it and should be able to do with it what they want.  Right? The authors offer up instructive opposing examples here.  When hackers started reprogramming the Xbox to do things like turn the lights on and off in their living room, Microsoft issued a cease-and- desist order, promptly pissing off many of their fans.  Rumba took another approach.  When people started reprogramming its robotic floor cleaner to do all kinds of wild, new things, like barking like a dog, the company said “that’s great” and encouraged people to let their imaginations run wild.

6) Find a Truth Turning Point

We all know that when politicians make a public gaff, it’s a rare glimpse into a candid and honest expression.  For brands, like politicians, the trick is to capitalize on these moments of unguarded truth by building on them, not running away from them.

7) Use Point-of-Action Media

The best way to strengthen your brand’s sense of truth is to tie your brand promise into a real world customer experience.  For, example Stove Top Stuffing put heaters at bus stops in Chicago throughout the winter creating islands of warmth and comfort for commuters, which ties in nicely with the brand’s warm and comforting food brand promise.

8)  Leverage Routine

Don’t tell people to do something different—fit into their existing behavior.  Years ago, when Twix was a small brand competing against other chocolate bars with far more money to spend, to break through it decided to tap into the timeless English tradition of daily tea time and become the tea-time treat.

In the 1970’s, Cunningham & Walsh, a top US ad agency claimed to offer its clients advertising that conveyed “truth with enthusiasm.”  We could certainly use a little more of that today, and thanks to Tell the Truth we now have a helpful guide.