Brands Trending Toward Transparency
In Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, a college graduate joins a powerful technology company and quickly climbs up the corporate ladder. Enjoying perks common to many Silicon Valley technology companies, she finds the job a dream come true. But as the company keeps innovating without giving thought to consequences, things spiral out of control. The company, to the accompaniment of mantras that “sharing is caring,” “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft,” starts promoting an ultra-transparent environment based on wearable cameras it has developed that provide real-time video of whatever the wearer is doing. Going “off the grid” soon becomes impossible. In the end, the protagonist succumbs to the company’s pressure to publicly share every aspect of her life.
While the book pokes fun at our increasingly transparent world, not all the ideas it presents are far-fetched. We live in a world where people constantly share their thoughts and a laundry-list of experiences on a range of social media platforms. As social sharing becomes more common among individuals and as revelations of corporate practices keep appearing in the news, demand grows for companies to draw back the curtain and become “transparent.”
What does it mean to be transparent? Transparency connotes candor – demonstrating that you have nothing to hide and that your actions are consistent with your professed values – but it does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. To be considered transparent, brands don’t have to open their HR files or share internal meeting minutes. CEOs don’t need to post Instagram photos of themselves with everyone they meet for lunch or cocktails. Rather, consumers just want to see evidence of what a company stands for – in deeds as well as words. Being transparent means sharing values and the thought process behind decision making. It means making a brand knowable in much the same way that personal acquaintances are known. Just as we can say without hesitation if our friends are trustworthy, transparency makes it possible for us to know whether a brand deserves our trust.
When consumers feel they can trust a brand, they often become brand loyalists and share their “finds” with others. This is priceless. There are a number of ways to build trust with the public and gain this unparalleled advantage:
Corporate social responsibility
Socially conscious campaigns are a great way to win consumers over – or at the very least spark positive buzz. TOMS Shoes is a good example of a socially responsible company that markets philanthropy and aligns its philanthropic efforts with its business. For every pair of shoes sold, it donates another pair to a child in need. Consumers feel good about their TOMS Shoes purchase knowing that they have simultaneously given to someone in need. In turn, their respect and trust for the brand grows. When a brand shows its charitable side, it becomes personified as a company that is relevant to the audience it is trying to reach.
Consumers want to know what a brand stands for. If consumers are to become a strong proponent of a brand, they need to know that the brand’s values align with their own. Dove has taken a clear stance on female beauty standards and positive body image through its Campaign for Real Beauty, which has sparked conversations about self-esteem and definitions of beauty. The brand is now associated with its “real women” campaign, meaning it has successfully promoted and stood by its core values.
Recently, there has been a rise in organic, natural product sales as consumers demand to know what is in the products they purchase. Many food companies are well aware of this trend and are making impressive changes to gain consumer trust. Earlier this year, Kraft announced that it is removing preservatives and orange coloring from its macaroni and cheese products. More recently, General Mills pledged to remove synthetic ingredients from its cereals. By making changes in response to consumer concerns, brands are demonstrating in actions, not just words that they care.
Social media platforms are today’s best way for brands to reach consumers on a personal level. Building trust and loyalty takes time and requires meaningful interactions, but with the maturation of social media, listening and responding have never been easier. Every day, thousands of consumers take to social media to voice their opinions and seek answers to their questions. The conversation about your industry – and perhaps your brand – is already ongoing. All you have to do is join. It will not only make you relevant, it will give you an opportunity to engage directly with your audience, reinforce your values and positioning, and correct misperceptions. Responding to a consumer concern online or sharing a companywide change in focus or design can go a long way toward cultivating consumer loyalty.
However, if the opportunity to engage with consumers is missed, it may cost a brand more than just a “like” or retweet. Brands can no longer get away with offering mediocre customer service or limited information. If a brand is not open and responsive, consumers will go elsewhere to find the answers they need or the service they desire. Worse, consumers will likely express their disappointment or frustration on social media. Brands are therefore well advised to use social media to build relationships and trust.
Everyone’s doing it
Looking at the current presidential campaign, it seems clear that to stay afloat, serious contenders, regardless of party, must get on the transparency bandwagon. When it was found that Hillary Clinton used a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State, suspicion mounted and has yet to abate. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, recently made public 33 years of tax records in what is believed to be the most far-reaching release of financial information ever made by a presidential candidate.
Just as voters want to back a transparent candidate they can trust, consumers want to spend their money with brands they can trust. With the constant sharing of information in today’s world, brands face getting left behind if they don’t join in and act transparently. Brands have a real opportunity to build a loyal fan base if they are willing to share and interact with the public in a way that makes clear that they are “walking the talk.”