Can we handle the truth?

GDR Creative Intelligence are known globally for providing brands with the latest on retail trends and their eagerly anticipated Global Innovation Report full of cutting-edge case studies.  This quarter, we were asked to design the cover, addressing the theme of ‘Transparency’. (You can find out more about our final design here.)

Never content to sit on the fence, we wanted to make a bold statement on a subject that has lit a fire under brands, and after much heated discussion within studio, got to thinking…

We’re fed up being lied to! Aren’t we? It’s what the current demand for brand transparency would seem to suggest. When Waterstones snuck into our quiet tourist towns and opened up branches under the guise of small independents – we were outraged. When KFC paraded a real life chicken across our TV screens – we were dubious. Our priorities as consumers have changed and moral standing is every bit as important as benefit and price. Consumers are asking more questions and often the ability to be transparent is competitive advantage.

Think about how ‘fast casual’ has impacted fast food. Ethically sourced ingredients, reasonable prices and happy employees paid fairly have turned the standard model on its head and shown consumers a better alternative. Brands like KFC and McDonald’s have long suffered rumours about the quality of their ingredients but are now forced to address them in order to respond to the new set standard. As Shake Shack CEO, Randy Garutti, rightly said, “The younger generation isn’t all of a sudden going to say, ‘I want less quality food’.” Certainly not.

Pandora’s box has been opened and for a lot of established brands this causes a problem. Transparency comes easy to the new brand straight out of the gate, but when you’ve already buried the bodies it can be hard to open up. Cue the identity crisis and PR pow wows! For those scrambling to keep up with the trend it soon comes down to the quickest and easiest way to wedge transparency into the business model and achieve a glowing public image akin to more evangelical brands.

Some will try to bypass transparency, piggy-backing on the propositions of others found to resonate with the consumer. Any major brewery to release an edgy ‘me-too’ craft range should provide sufficient evidence of this (but if you’ve ever witnessed anyone over the age of 18 trying to dab, you’ll have a good idea of how well this ham-fisted approach goes down).

Others will curate their own version of the truth – what I like to call the Real Housewives approach. Sharing their story in such a way to make it sound more appealing, but devoid of the nitty gritty that’s swept quietly under the rug. And herein lies the problem. It’s easily forgotten that for a brand to be transparent, it doesn’t have to be inherently good. Transparency is about warts and all honesty but, for the most part, feels more like the tactic of the moment – a series of ‘alternative facts’ offered up to make murky brands more permissible.

Of course consumers aren’t wholly innocent; we want our coffee fair trade but our fashion fast, our beef grass fed but our milk firmly under 50p. We want competent politicians but have flirted with the temptation of those promising to make things great again. Consumers are not immune to the tailored-to-fit-truths that seem to trump cold hard facts. A post-truth culture is just as prevalent in brand as it is in politics. But just like those so-called politico underdogs, duplicitous brands will have the rug pulled out faster than you can say ‘fake news’.

So for those looking to jump on the bandwagon, be prepared to lay it all out there. Playing in the grey area might seem like the safest bet but will only dilute the value of transparency until it’s all just noise. It has to be all or nothing. Dare to bare or be confident enough to remain the strong silent type – just don’t be afraid to be upfront about it. Remember that the truth will filter to the surface eventually, so make sure it’s you who puts it there.