Authenticity in the Age of Trump
Our aspirations are actually transactional. We want to sell people stuff. Authenticity is often more of a tactic than a value. We know this by looking at how we measure success – return on investment. (What kind of real-life friendships do you ROI?) We know this by our desperate embrace of data and technology in the name of something we call personalization, a weak and transparent substitute for insight. As George Burns said, “Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made.”
In reality, we know that we occupy only a tiny, tiny sliver of people’s lives – often as a matter of necessity or even annoyance -- and can be easily replaced. To them, even at our best, we are absolutely transactional. We know this.
In the wake of the US elections, it is time to examine these words more closely, more honestly. Authenticity, trust, and credibility served neither candidate particularly well. In fact, distrust was the over-riding driver of the election, on both sides of the argument. And, while marketing may feel pretty puny compared to the life-altering implications of this election’s result, we need to examine that distrust or risk missing something important.
Regardless of political opinion, economic status, gender, race, or geography, this election validated the rising tide of distrust of all our institutions – the media, governmental checks and balances, the courts, security, finance, health, and even, dare-I-say it?, Facebook. We Americans snickered at the silly British who brought on Brexit; we kept the anti-globalization, anti-immigration movements in Europe at arms’ length; we lived our lives, unexamined. Now the lid is off the box. So, what’s a marketer to do, especially if your brand is an incumbent? How do we build trust when skepticism is the prevailing perspective?
Start by listening more. Our industry has spent the last few years transitioning from that thing we call “advertising” to that other thing we call “content.” While it often may be hard to tell the difference between the two, the direction is correct. It’s a movement away from boasting to one of trying to be more of a thought partner, a helper. Let’s put more clarity and transparency around that movement. Let’s be more deliberate in making the transition to putting the customer’s needs above our own. And let’s recognize our prescribed place in their lives.
To do so, we need to listen. We need to truly understand whom we are trying to reach, what their pain points are, and what role we really play for them. So put aside your data and your technology, step out of your office and go talk to people. The tools will be waiting for you when you get back; maybe you will have some true insight on which to act.
What else? Sweat the small stuff. Your authenticity comes from dozens of small interactions. Small to you, that is, but large to your clients if they aren’t smooth. Every annoying interaction deepens the hole you have to climb out of, and no customer has to put up with even the smallest of divots. You want to be credible? Make the customer experience seamless. Trust comes from creating an environment that shows that you care. Human and empowered customer service. Thoughtful software upgrades. Responsive follow-ups. Common sense policies. All the things you hope for as a consumer. (The most disingenuous words in the English language have to be: “Your call is important to us. Please hold.”
Authenticity, trust, and credibility are more aspirational than ever – and more worthy of pursuit. Getting them right cannot be a question of business as usual. People on both sides of the political divide were shocked this month by the power of getting them wrong, the power of distrust. We should not have been then, and we certainly cannot be any longer.
As Global Vice President of Content Solutions at The Economist Group Jeff works with a team that includes journalists, researchers, editors, analysts, social media managers and creatives who produce and distribute thought leadership based on their proprietary research.
Prior to joining The Economist Group, Jeff spent 10 years at McKinsey & Co., where he was publisher of The McKinsey Quarterly.
Jeff started his career writing obituaries at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. After years as a reporter and editor there, he segued to B2B tech publishing, where he was the founding editor of TechWeb in the early ‘90s.
In addition to his work with The Economist Group, Jeff is a regular columnist for CMO.com, where he writes about Digital Disruption. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jpundyk