Adapted from Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, 2013.
It is by now lost on nobody that the media and marketing worlds have been turned topsy turvy by the digital revolution. Fragmentation in media consumption has deprived advertisers of the vast reach they've enjoyed for more than three centuries. Meanwhile, the internet has imposed unprecedented transparency on all institutions, commercial and otherwise. You can run ads, but you cannot hide. And all the secrets so easily searchable and shareable there have become common currency in social media. These converging forces have thrust all brands, like it or not, into what authors Bob Garfield and Doug Levy call "The Relationship Era." Marketers are being dragged kicking and screaming from a media environment they once bought and paid for into a universe they cannot control. As Garfield and Levy observe in their new book, Can't Buy Me Like, this is not as apocalyptic a circumstance as it may seem to the average CEO. On the contrary, it heralds a whole new set of standards for doing business. This article is adapted from their chapter 4, "Trust Me."
As recently as 2006, Edelman Public Relations informs us, in answering what was the standard of trust, consumers most often cited "quality products and services." And why wouldn't they? Absent any notion of how the business went about its business, the basic fact of delivering on promises was sufficient to satisfy customers.
If he could sell you gasoline for no more than the Mobil station caddycorner, and maybe change your muffler on short notice, you really could trust the man who wears the Texaco star. Historically speaking, if Maybelline said its mascara will make your lashes "long, longer, longest"--and it worked, and your eyes didn't swell shut, and the goo didn't clot or clump-- nobody was going to lose faith in the brand. If East Coast poultry giant Perdue commanded a premium for its plump, yellow chicken breasts, and they indeed looked less pale in the meat case, and if they cooked up juicy and delicious, people would credit the snarly founder's claim, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."
Once again, until very recently in the history of commerce, all you had to do was deliver the goods. No more.
Nowadays, if you sell chicken, you are at pains to explain the conditions at the broiler house. In fact, each bird had better come with a medical chart. If you sell mascara, it had better not have been tested on bunny rabbits. Likewise, General Electric may build CT scanners that save the lives of smiling South Asian children, just like on TV, but the company still must answer for 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls dumped into the Hudson River over the course of thirty years. Nike can inspire millions the world over by embracing the grit, beauty, drama, virtuosity, personality and the self- actualization of sport, yet faces lingering suspicion and resentment over its dependence on contract sweatshops in East Asia through the 1990s.
So sensitive is the public to corporate malfeasance that a three-store chain of Maryland pizzerias feels obliged to devote a portion of its menu to "About the coal we use" in the pizza ovens. (Calm down, everybody: it's anthracite.) So if Coal Fire Pizza has to worry about backlash, imagine Rush Limbaugh's advertisers. In March 2012, when the right-wing blunderbuss called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke "a slut" and a "prostitute" for testifying before Congress in favor of government-subsidized contraception, citizens got to work boycotting Limbaugh's sponsors. This led to a rapid exodus, with Sears, JCPenney, Netflix, AOL and dozens of others tripping over one another to get out of the door.
Once upon a time, of course, they could have waited for the tempest to blow over, its unfortunate associations papered over by feel-good advertising, or diminished by consumer disengagement-- disengagement due to both lack of information and a sense of helplessness in con- fronting large institutions. "You can't fight City Hall," conventional wisdom for pretty much the whole of the twentieth century, is seldom ever uttered because it is no longer true. The Internet has provided the resources to know what The Man is up to and to very much take him on. Invested with such power, modern consumers care about and ex- press themselves about issues that were nonissues for most of human existence-- and they do so with unprecedented access to data, documents, journalism and to this point isolated uproars concerning virtually every activity undertaken by every company virtually everywhere in the world.
Even in China, despite extreme monitoring and censorship, microblog platforms have precipitated major scandals. In 2011, for instance, the Shuanghui Group's Shineway brand of pork products were revealed to have been processed from hogs fed with clenbuterol, an illegal additive that poisons humans. When a derailment of the nation's new magnetic-levitation trains killed thirty-eight people and injured two hundred in the same year, the government ordered the media not to cover the accident, and the media obliged -- but cell phone pictures from the scene spread in social media and soon revealed that the authorities had brought in earth- moving equipment to literally bury the evidence.
If there is nowhere to hide in China, it's folly to think you can operate under the radar here. You think you can protect secrets? Ask Brett Favre, Hall-of-Fame penis texter. Or ask the U. S. Department of State about Wikileaks. Heightened awareness combined with digital access has made the governments of the world, and the Fortune 1000, a Levittown of glass houses. The apotheosis of technology- driven transparency is GoodGuide. Led by UC-Berkeley professor Dara O'Rourke, GoodGuide employs a team of chemists, toxicologists, nutritionists, sociologists, and life-cycle analysis experts to research and rate consumer products on health, environmental impact and on impact to society. To date it has rated upward of 175,000 toys, foods and packaged goods on a 1 to 10 scale. Consumers can search products at GoodGuide. com, or use a mobile app to scan products at retail. Then, in an instant, they can discover that Honest Tea is rated 8.6 overall, and Pepsi is rated 4.9 .
It will come as little surprise, then, that by 2010, mere "quality" as a standard of brand confidence had dropped to number three in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Number one-- with 83 percent citing it-- was "transparent and honest practices." Good conduct. Solid citizenship. Core values. The stuff of essential self. If you scanned the signage at the Occupy Wall Street encampments, you'd see that Goldman Sachs took a drubbing. Google, whose managers are very much in the despised 1 percent, somehow got a pass.
The company's watchword is "Don't be evil." The first thing it ever searched was its soul. Can your company say the same?