As a strategist and communications professional, I care deeply about words. So it was with a heavy heart that I read that Oxford Dictionaries had elected “post-truth” as The Word Of 2016, beating out “woke” and “adulting,” among other worthy and infinitely less depressing candidates.
Yes, we are living in a post-truth era. We are dealing with the aftermath of an election swayed by fake news, and as a consequence have a President who has such an incredibly casual relationship with facts that he will flat-out deny ever having mocked a disabled reporter, despite the whole world having watched him do it. We have a President who claims to have seen thousands of people in New Jersey cheering on 9/11, despite no such footage actually existing. We have a President who claims that “the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” Wire-tapping, voter-fraud, inauguration crowd size, murder rates… I could go on, but you know all this already.
Let’s be clear – this is a deliberate strategy with a clear political purpose: when you don’t just blur but erase the line between fact and falsehood, you make it near impossible for anyone to define your position. This is an insidious and new form of power. As we are now learning, holding a post-truth politician to account becomes akin to nailing jelly to a wall.
Now, one might think that this chaotic bullshit should provide fertile ground for marketers, who are often seen to profit by offering deceitful panaceas to life’s woes. Isn’t this factual uncertainty a boon, allowing us to invent spurious yet uniquely brand-solvable problems and to create ever-stronger reality distortion fields?
While that cynical approach may seem superficially attractive, I’d like to argue that it is a marketing path not just for charlatans, but also for fools.
Post-truth works brilliantly for demagogues because if one doesn't know whether anything is true, how does one know what to stand against or fight for? Victims of gaslighting end up questioning their own sanity. They stop fighting and caring. They give up.
While a passive populace may be great news for dictators, it is actually terrible news for marketers. To succeed - to foster loyalty and brand equity - we need people to care about the brands we create and foster. To succeed, we need to create energy. We need people to believe, and not to automatically disregard, every commercial message as spurious crap. To succeed, we need to be in the business of truth.
Let’s be clear here – the enemy of truth is lies, yes, but it is also bias, convention and supposition. Even our supposedly almighty data is not the truth: Trump instinctively grasped a truth about the electorate that had eluded almost every data-driven pollster and pundit (also: the Trump campaign spent more on ball caps than on polling… think about the truth in that).
The real, capital T truth comes from people, not numbers. The truth is mercurial and elusive. It contains multitudes. It is messy, unwieldy, contradictory and laden with tensions. And this is exactly why the truth is where all great stories start.
This post-truth era will be the era in which brands that are transparent, honest and customer-centric will succeed. Strong, resilient brands will have a clear and deeply held purpose, with products and services that play a real role in people's lives, and communications which arise from meaningful insights into the audience.
With this in mind, here are three practical steps to ensure that your brand can stand firm amid the treacherous waters of our times:
Firstly, ensure your brand has a strong sense of purpose with supreme clarity on your “why” (I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek’s thinking on this: “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”). Tom’s, Dove and Ben & Jerry’s are great examples of brands who are consistently true to their core beliefs.
Secondly, weed out any wishful thinking or conventional wisdom from your brand strategy and replace it with the truth. Nike, a brand with more bragging rights than most, has mined a deeply truthful tone with ads such as “Jogger” and “Last." Even at its most hyperbolic, Nike manages to never draw fouls.
Thirdly, respect your audience. Remember that they are human beings with hopes, needs and dreams well beyond their relationship with your product or service. Stop thinking of them as “consumers” - it demeans and belittles them. Think less about just what your product does, and more about how it can enhance people’s lives.
Yes, all of this is damn hard work, much harder than ignoring the complicated reality and just making shit up and settling for hollow slogans in place of meaningful strategies. But, for the sake of our industry and for the sake of society, let’s not give in to the fraudulent spirit of the times. George Orwell (a man who knew a thing or two about dictators and demagogues) wrote “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” So let’s welcome this post-truth era, let’s start a revolution in marketing and let’s create the best work of our careers.
Jason Lonsdale is chief strategy officer at Mekanism. He tweets @jasonlonsdale