Radical transparency is not the answer to broken consumer trust

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Consumer trust is at an all-time low, so Edelman and other companies tell us – assuming we can trust their data of course.

Radical transparency is not the answer

A frequently touted panacea is some version of radical transparency. McDonalds’ recent ‘Our Food. Your Questions’ campaign being a good case in point.

The problem is that transparency campaigns like this do not lead to trust. Or at least, not in the way it’s usually presented.

One idea behind the move towards radical transparency is that, given that it’s become so easy for customers to uncover what’s happening behind closed doors, businesses may as well break down the fourth wall and show customers they are at least doing some good and trying to fix the bad. Before, that is, a disgruntled IT manager tweets about the real conditions of underpaid workers in overheated warehouses.

The first issue is that there are clearly common sense limits as to what can be made radically transparent. Swiss banks aside, no business reliant on client confidentiality or creative R&D, or that is going through a rocky period of change can be expected to be entirely transparent. Even if businesses were able to share with consumers absolutely everything that happens behind the scenes, few consumers would have the time or inclination to act as independent auditors.

But the second, and more important issue, is that managed transparency can make us even more suspicious. When a magician rolls up his sleeves, we can see that there’s nothing there, but it doesn’t stop us wondering what’s going on behind his back. The problem with transparency initiatives is precisely that they are too easy to see through. While businesses can be transparent with us around any particular set of facts, we will always be left wondering what we’re not seeing. Chastened MPs for example, must now reveal their expenses in public. It’s not obvious that as a result, we now feel completely confident they are behaving trustworthily in all other respects.

More importantly, the main issue is that trust doesn’t stem from our ability to know everything – but in how comfortable we are in not knowing everything.

If your partner tells you they are going to visit a friend for the evening and reassures you they are not up to mischief by proposing that you install a tracking device so that you can view their every movement and monitor every text message, it’s unlikely to engender trust in any meaningful sense.

We can only say that we trust others when we are comfortable not knowing exactly what they are doing.

On a similar line, Aristotle felt that justice is just a failed form of friendship. He didn’t mean that justice is a bad thing, just that friendship is much better – and involves fewer lawyers. Transparency is correspondingly a failed form of trust, not the royal road towards it.

At a basic level, there is something either deeply cynical, or simply unnecessary, about businesses proactively launching initiatives to foster more consumer trust. The level of trust consumers have in a brand will clearly correlate closely with sales. But the logical correlation between how trusted a brand is and how trustworthy that brand is – is zero, as VW, Tesco, and The Cooperative Bank have all proven over the past few years.

The solution is rather to act in trustworthy ways. That starts internally, with staffing, recruitment, training and other policies that are, in short, to do with culture. Consumer trust will naturally result, and will be much better placed and longer lasting. That’s not to say that companies should be overly secretive of course. When asked reasonable questions, they should answer as fully as they can.

Transparency initiatives are clearly a logical option for brands who’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar and who now have their backs to the wall. But for most brands, there’s no need to jump on the bandwagon.

Otherwise, like the car salesman who offers us the chance to look under the hood one too many times, we will end up generating not trust, just an even deeper level of cynicism.

Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.

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