Why It's Important To Integrate Honesty Into Your Brand

In a world of social media, people will find out your mistakes. The solution: Own up to them first.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" yelled the Wizard of Oz in a fit of hysteria, as the secret of his human-ness was unveiled.

This quote, of course, is from the 1939 classic fantasy film The Wizard of Oz. And in this specific scene, Dorothy and her gang have broken into the Wizard’s chamber, where little dog Toto opens a green satin curtain to expose the ultimate sham—an ordinary man operating a panel of wheels and levers while speaking into a microphone. There is no great and powerful wizard.

This line would become one of the most ironic lines of the 20th century, largely because, as a culture, we did not successfully interpret its implication. It was a warning sign to look beyond flashiness and fancy lighting. But we failed to listen.

Over the course of the following decades, we would permit ourselves to be duped into taking things at face value, especially when it came to the influence of big brands. In the '60s, cigarette brands told us that smoking was stylish and healthy. We smoked like chimneys. In the '80s, corporate America successfully situated fast-food restaurants, brand-name blue jeans and cheap technologies into our day-to-day lives. We bought into the whole thing.

The standard approach for most companies was to focus on how they looked—all brand botox and no heart. Soul-destroying advertising became the standard, unrealistic images of what beauty should be were emblazoned across billboards, while being ingrained subtly through television. The biggest brands in the world emulated the wizard, successfully telling us not simply what to buy, but what type of lifestyles ought to be pursued. The wizardry worked like magic.

But now it’s 2012, and the rules of marketing are changing because the world is changing. Blind consumerism driven by spoon-fed corporate advertising is on its way out. Consumers are starved for a new type of corporate engagement, a new form of capitalism. We are realizing that there is little correlation between owning "stuff" and being happy. We are eager to shop with values, and to support brands that actually stand for something other than product and bottom line. We’re weaning ourselves off uninspired corporate messaging. We crave honest brands

The most intelligent brands are sensing the sea change, and they’re adjusting by shifting with the evolving social environment. They understand that it’s no longer practical to attempt to distract consumers from the nasty implications of their production line by hosting glitzy charity balls or supporting pink-washed cancer runs. Instead, they’re bucking up, telling the truth, and making changes. Why? Because they actually want to exist in the future.

But wait, I know what you’re thinking: "Isn’t it nearly impossible for a brand to tell the truth?"

The biggest misconception is that brand perfection is necessary before honesty is a valid brand strategy. Yet ask any couple that’s been married for 30 years and they’ll tell you this: Being honest does not mean being perfect. In brand parlance, it simply means truthfully communicating the challenges being faced, and then putting in the legwork to address those challenges.

A few brands can be applauded for their approach to honesty, while some have considerable work to do. This month, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (a company owned by Unilever) successfully joined the socially responsible B Corporation movement, and in doing so has made its full B Impact Assessment and governing documents visible to the public. In the retail world, footwear company Timberland is mapping its progress in improving factory conditions. It’s a great example of a brand that’s not perfect, but working to make changes.

In a recent report on transparency in corporate reporting among the 105 largest publicly listed multinational companies, it’s surprising to see that oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil (also far from perfect) rank much higher in transparency than popular tech companies such as Google and Apple. And in terms of integrity, public perception of Google and Apple continue to fluctuate. If I were a PR executive at these tech companies, my palms would be sweaty.

But there’s a simple solution.

Brands need to know that, when presented with honesty, consumers become loyal enthusiasts. We increasingly allocate our money and ‘likes’ in ways that promote the type of world we want to live in–-it’s a form of consumer democracy that has arrived to the modern world where every dollar is a vote. And although the debate rages on whether or not corporations are people, there is one thing that’s certain: Every brand on the face of this planet has a heart. Each brand has values and intentions. How do we know this? Companies are constructed by people who have values and intentions, and therefore are neither apolitical nor neutral. Brands are a reflection of the people behind them. And consumers are eager, if not practically begging, to see honest hearts at the core of their favorite companies.

So are you listening, big brands?

Companies can go in two directions: 1) Continue to conceal and to sweep away the internal brand truths, or 2) move towards a communications strategy of honesty and transparency. In an era of connection and instant sharing—where social media is the little dog ripping open every curtain across the land—a movement towards truth-speaking is undoubtedly the most intelligent.

The practical approach is to avoid the inevitable hysteria that will ensue when someone else exposes the truth. Unlock the castle doors before they get broken down. Lift the curtain before it gets ripped open. Be brave and be honest.

And—chances are—consumers will love you all the more.

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  • Nei Grando

    Excellent post! Managers of companies who value their brands and are seeking sustainability should read this article. Again we see that behind every brand is a culture. The mission, vision, strategy and values​​, ie, behaviors that people will have to execute the strategy that leads from the mission to the vision - also has everything to do with the brand. And this shows us that Brand is much more than visual design, logo, colors, ... is a soul of an organization that is alive and relational.

  • Uri Neren

    I agree in spirit and would like to add to your sentiments Daniel.  
    We took this a bit further in our research on large company innovation and growth. See today's piece on Harvard Business Review about Patagonia as well as the studies from Conscious Capitalism.  Authenticity throughout has enormous payoffs.  Best, Uri Neren


  • Ban Mittal

    Well argued. One question remains. Why be honest--for profit or for morality?

  • Him Again

     I really miss being young after reading this article. ....... Wait a minute, no I don't!  It does make you feel all warm and fuzzy for a moment, but cynical intelligence will keep you alive and well much, much longer than the promise "you will look lovelier and younger in just 10 days - just drink/apply/inject/eat/wear THIS!"
    The basis of the whole world's communication is caveat emptor (translated: Tell 'em what the want to hear").
    Think about just one product brand:  Apple.  
    Only the young (or young at heart) buy it, right?

  • Alison

    Agreed.  I heard an interview with the owner/founder of Chobani yogurt yesterday, a start-up billionaire.  The question was asked of him, with consumer's fickle tastes, what kind of product development will you do to keep people buying your yogurt?  His answer: we don't need to change up our product all the time, we believe that yogurt is a timeless product and people will always want it.  They will return to a high-quality product.
    Obviously, he's a smart guy and I'm sure makes changes in his business all the time, but I loved the transparency of him not trying to pretend to be something other than a yogurt company.  Definitely made me want to switch my brand from Fage to Chobani.

  • avi

    wait! what about those oil companies? can you explain the implications of their honesty? is that making the world a better place?

  • avi

    daniel, what that says to me is that honesty as such can be dissociated from its positive content (accountability etc).  isn't it possible that we are headed towards a corporate model of naked honesty where--instead of the weak speaking truth to power--power itself speaks the truth, and does not change the substance of its actions?

    i'm just worried we want to be told a STORY of brand honesty, in the same way we were told STORIES of stylishness etc.

  • Daniel

    Hey Avi. Good questions.

    It's tough to determine if the oil companies are making the world a better place. But according to the study, they are making corporate information more accessible than some of the other top publicly traded companies. In some ways they have less to lose because their corporate reputations are already questionable to the public, so why not be honest?

    Remember the rankings are not about environmental or social damage. They're about transparency. 

  • queenofromania

    Frank Baum, the author of "Wizard of Oz" took some of his inspiration from P.T. Barnum, via the Kansas professor, when he (the professor) noted that Americans liked to be hornswoggled. Americans would even pay money to be hornswoggled. This is the 'truth' that American corporations have discovered to their immense profit. Unless, and until, we change our values, we will continue to be hornswoggled, as this is our preference. Keep pulling the curtain back. It will do us all a great deal of good.

  • Guest

    This shows us to go to facebook and other sites to advertise.  It's all a great idea, but when you are made fun of, and called a scammer, it really hurts your feelings.  

    When some of us really need help, our hopes get crushed real quick sometimes.

  • jvanhala

    a truly high quality post and completely worth writing and rewriting - this has been so true long before seth godin wrote that "all marketers are liars" etc . . but what is remarkable to me is how many very senior execs at many different types of industries still do not recognize this. 

    authenticity and honesty magnetizes. inauthentic brand communications we can smell from miles away.

  • Daniel

    Thanks Jon. 

    We agree that inauthentic brand communications have a counterproductive stench to them.

  • Mark Walker

    Great article, I truly believe this is the case. I wonder what your thoughts are on small companies, should they also be honest? the biggest smoke screen I know many small companies try to put up is the number of employees and turnover, thinking that their customers may chose your larger competitor over you just because there bigger and its perceived therefore strong and more reliable. 

  • Daniel

    Thanks Mark.

    We believe that small companies should be open and honest as well. If I were marketing a small business, I'd be focusing on the advantages and strengths. Know what can be delivered, and communicate that with consistency and heart. Also: Differentiate with a purpose, stand for something. 

  • Sid Gandotra

    Just to add context to this article, in my opinion I believe that companies have somewhat failed to understand the consumer's perspective in this fast paced digital environment. Due to the tectonic shift in marketing, the brand is no longer a company commodity, rather it is considered to be a consumer centric brand where I feel companies should educate, engage and empower the target audience. By doing so, the companies will be able to build the trust and solidify their perception in the minds of the consumers. 

  • Elise L.

    I love the Wizard of Oz metaphor! Brilliant way to illustrate your point. I love your articles Mr. Baylis.