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Transparency and Authenticity in Marketing and Branding

By February 13, 2021Uncategorized

The following article first appeared in my Douglas Magazine column in 2011 but I thought it was worth resurrecting here as there are a lot of valid points that still hold strong.

The editor of Douglas magazine, Brian Hartz, called me the other day and said, “Mike, have you heard all the chatter about Miracle Whip’s new marketing campaign?” He went on to outline Kraft’s new social media promotional extravaganza, “We’re not for everyone.” This piqued my interest so I checked what all the fuss was about.

In case you haven’t seen the television commercials, or read about them on one of the dozens of social media sites that have discussed the campaign, the condensed version is that Kraft filmed average people (although exceptionally screen-worthy individuals) reporting that they either loved or hated Miracle Whip. It seems no punches were pulled and the naysayers were heard calling the product, “Spreadable disappointment” or saying, “I could never date someone who liked Miracle Whip.” Others damned the product with faint praise, my favourite being. “I can’t stand Miracle Whip but thanks to the way you advertise, it’s now on my shelf – next to the Old Spice.” I have to say that last comment gave me a whole new perspective on this iconic spread.

The question is, whether this honesty and openness about the shortcomings of a product, which is not universally loved, works in terms of sales or whether it just highlights the fact that many people find it decidedly horrid.  Well there is an old saying, “There’s no bad publicity along as they spell your name correctly,” so in terms of sheer social media exposure, Kraft have done rather well. In terms of straight numbers Kraft’s YouTube site registers 43,108 lovers of Miracle Whip against just 3,118 who hate it (as at April 5, 2011). But has it converted anyone? Many marketing pundits’ say that the campaign increases loyalty in those that are already enamoured with the product and piques the interest in those that haven’t tried it. Others say that negativity is negativity and it has no place in a marketing campaign, unless it’s negativity about the competition (think car advertisements).

Marmite, the British yeast extract spread has been around for 100-years, and was probably the first to try this approach. The company’s website still allows visitors to enter either an “I love it” or “I hate it” portal where they will find information suited to their perspective. The ‘hate it’ side is particularly honest and at one point announces, “It was during the 1900s that Marmite emerged as a mainstream torment to society. Previously it had been consumed only by those with a strange liking for unpleasant taste sensations.” The bottom line is that the promotional strategy worked for Marmite, who saw a consistent growth of five per cent per year over the following five years.

All this leads me to ponder the issue of transparency and authenticity in marketing. Think about your own company’s marketing for a moment. Is it completely honest? Do you tell it as it is, or are you economical with the truth? Perhaps you exaggerate a little, or as Shakespeare put it, “gild the lily”.

I suppose the questions is, can being painfully open about the pros and cons of your product or service pay off, if you handle it properly? I think it can, it certainly worked for Miracle Whip and Marmite although I suppose they had a lot they needed to be honest about!

In today’s media frenzied world we’re bombarded with messages. And consumers are better educated, more knowledgeable and more importantly, increasingly connected by the click of a mouse to thousands of ‘friends’. Rather than ask ourselves is this the time to become transparent and authentic in our marketing, perhaps a better question might be, can we afford not to be?

The Internet is rife with product reviews by customers, whether it’s for a camera or a hotel. We as consumers are not stupid, we check out products and services online long before we go into the store. There is no hiding place for companies wishing to tell anything but the absolute truth about the features, advantages and benefits of what they sell.

If you want to embrace this new marketing concept a good company to emulate is Buckley’s cough and cold medicines – their slogan says it all, “It tastes awful. And it Works.” Get back to the roots of what you are and what you stand for. When you get right down to it, authenticity in marketing is all about practicing what you preach and being totally clear about what it is that you do best. What you promote and what your customer experiences need to be in complete harmony or the disconnect will damage your integrity. What’s more, customers will stop believing in your messaging.

All this reminds me of Miracle on 34th Street. I have watched the 1947 movie many times. It featured Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle the Macy’s store Santa, who happily tells customers that they will get what they’re looking for at Gimbels across the street if Macy’s doesn’t have something in stock, or are offering it at a higher price. The store manager is furious of course and threatens to fire poor Kris, but lo and behold the customers are amazed and impressed by this generosity of spirit, this honesty and transparency and subsequently become even bigger fans of America’s largest department store.

Staying true to who you are, to your authenticity will endear you to consumers; think Apple, Levi Jeans and Ikea as good examples, in contrast to companies that are struggling with the authenticity of their image such as Columbia Coffee who created the fictional character of Juan Valdez, the coffee grower, and Starbucks coffee, who some say have got so large and corporate that they have lost their personal relationship with customers.

Marketing today is increasingly participatory; it’s no longer one way, it’s about engaging your community (prospects, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders) around you, your company and your products and services. The more you encourage and embrace the stories people tell you about your brand, the more word about you will spread. Use humour, honesty, openness and above all be entertaining and you will start to be seen above the increasing chatter and noise of our current social media frenzy.