To wear a sock, or not? Debates around radical transparency are heating up as experts, cynics and customers consider just how much they need to see in order to trust a brand…
Apple lying to its customers about the longevity of its iPhone batteries. VW tinkering with its vehicle emissions results to appear greener. Instagram-challenger Vero revealing it actually mined users' data for advertisers, despite ‘no advertising’ promises on the platform. With more and more stories emerging of brands actively lying to get their way, it’s little wonder consumers are fighting back. Demanding better behavior before buying into what’s being sold. The veil is being lifted. Blind groupies they are not.
In today’s unforgiving landscape, radical transparency is where it’s at. Honesty and then some. The guts to get it all out, on the world stage, for everyone to see.
Of course, telling the truth is not a new thing. For brands like McDonald’s it’s been part of its strategy for years. In 2012, McDonald’s Canada launched its 'Our Food. Your Questions' campaign in response to allegations of poor quality and questionable animal-care practices. Customers could submit questions such as: "How is it that the McDonald's burger does not rot?", to which the company would respond.
Its most popular video response explained why a hamburger looks different in advertising than it does when purchased from the restaurant. It currently has 12 million views on YouTube. On the strength of the campaign, Marketing Magazine named McDonald's Canada Marketer of the Year, saying that the company had "redefined transparency".
What McDonald’s and others have been doing for a while is now starting to ripple out to others, who are taking the truth and pushing its marketing potential still further.
For online retailer Everlane, transparency is its currency. Everlane shares the stories of each factory it uses to produce its clothes, and even lets customers set their own prices when the brand has a sale. They are given pointers on how much Everlane requires for production, shipping, team overheads and surplus to invest back into the company, and, furnished with that information, can make their choice.
Everlane's success suggests a lot of people welcome this kind of extreme brand nudity. But it hasn’t left everyone convinced that what they’re seeing is, well, real. Rumors abound that the authenticity of Everlane’s exposed parts are somewhat inflated – its factory list isn't complete, for example, and there are concerns that details of working conditions aren’t provided by an independent third party. If you’re going to bare all, it seems, you need to do just that and make sure the detail stacks up. Or be prepared for some pretty chilly challenges that could see your bold bravado – and brand equity – shrivel before your stakeholders’ eyes.
If you do it, mean it
For consultant and content strategist Conor McNichols, the success of transparency as a strategy depends on a brand's authenticity. “I think for some products that are ephemeral and likely to be at a lower price point, the authentic experience is to consume but not really think about them,” he says. “For other products and services, it’s important to understand how and where and why they’re created, because it’s part of the experience to be able to understand.”
He uses music as an example. “Great pop music is there to be consumed, chewed up, and played a hundred times, and then you move on. Whereas with other music, you want to fully experience an album, read about how it was made and the experience of making it. For some things, it’s important to dig into the authenticity.”
So rather than flinging off clothes in wild abandon, perhaps it’s a case of knowing exactly what sort of brand you are to your consumers, before deciding whether to show what you’re made of? Radical transparency clearly won’t be right for everybody and in some cases it could even be damaging.
“I've had conversations with a financial-services brand that isn't comfortable with being totally transparent because if they don't have anything to hide, they're opening themselves up to unwarranted suspicion,” says Ewen Haldane, business director at the School of Life. He raises an interesting point. Often if a brand is telling you it’s being honest, you can’t help but suspect something’s going on. Coming across as if you’re on the defensive does no one any good. “Opening up the hood to show you’ve got nothing to hide is quite a natural and logical step to win back trust,” Haldane continues, “but it's not genuine trust – it's more reassurance for the customer that they're not being screwed over. There's no real need for going down the transparency path for brands who aren't doing anything wrong.”
In brands we trust
For Haldane, it’s the interpretation of the word trust that sits at the heart of the radical transparency movement; the difference between trust as reliability and trust as a moral issue. Citing the VW emissions scandal as an example, he explains; “The scandal didn't affect consumer behavior too much – VW was doing something dodgy, but it didn't compromise the quality of the vehicles. It would be different if the wheels were falling off, for example. People didn't care so much that they lied because the reliability of the cars wasn't compromised.”
Consumers still trusted VW’s product so its brand was merely bruised rather than broken. Haldane sees this as indicative of a default level of trust that consumers have, though he’s clear that brands mustn’t take advantage. “It’s about creating the right culture within a company so its people can maintain the trust consumers put in their brand,” he continues. “For example, Unilever got rid of its short-term targets because they can incentivize risky behaviour. On a cultural level, removing those targets creates a safe space where employees don't have to cut corners and take risks that could lead to a trust breakdown.”
It’s clear then, that for truth to really cut it in the marketing mix, it needs to run deep. Really deep. And technology is helping brands get there. A public ledger that records digital transactions, blockchain allows no room for data manipulation and is already being used by the likes of Walmart and IBM to collect data about the origin, safety and authenticity of food.
“Technology like blockchain will allow us to track stuff effortlessly right the way back through the creation process,” McNichols continues. “Whether you want to dig into that data or just have it surfaced as a big green tick that your personal AI can analyze for you, it’s up to you. But that transparency of creation will be really powerful.”
He also points to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as another method of delivering transparency. APIs allow two applications to talk to each other, so, if you're checking your email (hopefully not your partner’s) on your phone, you're using an API.
“I’ve long been fascinated by APIs as a business building block rather than just an external delivery system,” McNichols says. “It’s usually seen as something you can bolt onto the outside of an organization that will then allow you to exchange data with something else. What’s interesting is the conversations about applying it to an internal linking system.”
McNichols explains that at Amazon, an API is set up for each new project, which means all the data relating to that project is instantly available to everyone in the business. “You just put in the request for the data and it automatically comes up, and that creates a transparency to what everybody is doing in the business, so there’s trust. No one needs to hide anything. That sense of radical transparency running right through your business as a part of your internal operating system means you can’t help but be truthful in what you do and how you talk to people.”
And there it is. Truth as a default, built into your business’ bones will always win out. Does Amazon market itself on this radical transparency? No. Does it make a difference to customers and (potentially unbeknownst to them) their perceptions of the brand? Almost definitely.
The future of the radical transparency trend is (ironically) unclear. But one thing’s for sure. If you’re honest in the way you work, at every point of your supply chain and every touch point with your customer, then should you choose to strip down starkers you’re going to feel confident enough to strut your stuff. Anthony Kiedis eat your heart out.
Helene Dancer is a freelance writer, journalist, video producer and director who specialises in travel, arts and culture.
She has worked with the BBC, Lonely Planet, the Guardian, Vice and CNN, and also develops editorial content for brands including Audi, Harrods, Land Rover, Mazda and Nike.