From Franklin to Trump: why it’s more important than ever to build real brands in a fake news era

Fake news is not a new problem – just ask Mark Antony and Marie Antionette, whose untimely ends are historically attributed to it, centuries ago. While Benjamin Franklin used it to sway public opinion in favour of the American Revolution. But it’s the more recent political unrest in the US and here in the UK, transparency in digital advertising and the proliferation of viral content across the web that has brought the fake news term to the fore.

The definition of what fake news is, or how (and if) it can be stopped is a topic of ongoing debate in the ever-evolving content landscape. The immediate issue at play here is that the legitimacy of all content sources, not just media, are being questioned. People do not know who or what to trust, and that’s a problem.

BBC World Service recently found that 79% of its global audience were concerned about what is fake versus what is real online. The reality is that the likes of the BBC, HuffPost and other trusted publishers are working hard to consistently provide quality, up to the minute, evidence-based and fact-checked content.

But publishers aren’t the only ones under fire as brands also need to increasingly demonstrate authenticity, relevance and quality through content marketing to help combat the threat of misinformation and help build brand affinity.

With mobile technology and social media usage surging, the paradigm of communication has shifted, becoming flatter – if not being levelled all together. As a result, producing authentic content and building a trusted brand that connects with its audience is more meaningful than ever before.

The value exchange has evolved

An audience is no longer a witness, the lines of communication have been opened, therefore making them a part of a brand’s story. Although for some brands this is a frightening concept, there is now an opportunity for branded content to become a more powerful marketing tool than ever before. You’ve heard it – younger generations are more sceptical of traditional advertising methods and (buzzword incoming) millennials, simply don’t like being broadcast to. They want transparent experiences that they are part of.

According to this year’s Havas Meaningful Brands Study 60% of content created by brands is still regarded as ‘clutter’. The reason? I’d hazard a guess that it’s because brands are still figuring out how to leverage social media in content marketing to not just speak, but to listen, and be heard.

Start with getting to know your audience. What are they interested in? What platforms are they using? By leveraging social listening tools and audience insight, brands can start creating content that taps into passion points and creates real value for their audience.

With so much content readily available, relevancy is the very minimum of what consumers require. Impersonal and irrelevant ad experiences signal that the brand not only doesn’t ‘get’ its customers but it doesn’t care either. You only have to look at the rise in ad blockers as proof of this.

The value exchange needs to work for both brands and consumers. Brands have an opportunity to build stronger relationships and meaningful interactions via branded content and consumers get quality content that they want to engage with.

Authenticity resonates

Brands can fall into the trap of investing in new gimmicks and platforms or hijacking trending issues for the sake of being timely, mistaking it for being relevant. A filter needs to be applied to ensure that a brand genuinely has a voice on a matter and that it is appropriate to contribute to that conversation before jumping in.

A perfect example of this being executed well was in June this year, when Trump was set to make the infamous decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. 25 of the biggest companies in the US signed an open letter, which was published in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as a full page ad, urging for the president to remain. Their plea was written to echo the opinion of many consumers that had voiced their dismay across social channels; not on a march through Washington, which might have been the case in the 60s.

However, being an authentic brand doesn’t stop with one good ad campaign. It is an iterative process. Brands that continually critique, refine and adapt their campaigns, as well as the perception of the holistic brand will build customer loyalty.

Procter & Gamble's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard heralded 2017 as the year that brands wake up and accelerate to the next transformation of brand building, using their ‘voice for good’. I share Marc’s optimism. Brands have never mattered more.

The media and marketing landscape has evolved dramatically and, in fact, thanks to fake news there is massive demand for brands to be real and strive for better. A good thing for the industry, consumers and brands alike providing them the insight of not just what to say, but how to say it, and when.

Mark Melling is head of RYOT Studio UK at Oath

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