It was the simplest of questions, and one that I was expecting.
“You refer to yourself as an "unapologetic marketing truth teller." What truths are you questioning?”
The query came from Britta Schellenberg, VP of Corporate Marketing at BrightCove, and the kind of woman you’d follow into battle if the opportunity ever arose.
The team had invited me to speak earlier that day at PLAY 2018, and our conversation was meant to focus on social media, digital marketing, and the use of video. But, as I am prone to do, we took the discussion a bit off-topic.
(I could blame the scotch they kindly brought to me mid-interview, but I’ll blame it instead on the fact that Britta is one of the smartest and most provocative business leaders I know.)
Check out video of our full conversation here.
And thank you, Britta, because after your question, I found myself pondering the role of truth more and more.
Truth is at the core of every major movement in history. The #MeToo movement, for example, is simply about exposing the truth, one story at a time.
As Jon Rosta says:
“It's truth that has set into motion many marketplace effects that have crushed that status quo.”
And now is the time for a discussion about truth, more so than ever. From where I sit, here are five facts we are all now contending with:
1. Assertive truth brings growth
Truth often challenges us. It’s uncomfortable. But within that tension comes growth.
This idea of using assertive truth in the B2B purchase process has always been the most appealing aspect of The Challenger Sale to me.
In the Challenger Sale model, teams who can confidently educate prospects with new insights about their own business situation successfully reframe that customer’s POV. They don’t “bludgeon customers with endless facts and features about their company and products.”
(That’s quite a visual.)
They provide customers a credible, surprising way to operate more effectively. This leads to higher levels of loyalty, and ultimately, greater growth.
“Winning organizations lead with insight and challenge customer assumptions to mobilize customers around a purchase.”
That’s immense power grounded in truth and insight, rather than hyperbole, or spin.
2. The current state of truth is: decaying
But, this is not simply an issue that's important to our modern marketing and sales climate. Today's Guardian article demonstrates the current state of truth in our world.
“The term “truth decay” has joined the post-truth lexicon that includes such now familiar phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. And it’s not just fake news either: it’s also fake science (manufactured by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, who oppose vaccination), fake history (promoted by Holocaust revisionists and white supremacists), fake Americans on Facebook (created by Russian trolls), and fake followers and “likes” on social media (generated by bots).”
“Around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, andreplacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd. False claims about the UK’s financial relationship with the EU helped swing the vote in favour of Brexit, and Russia ramped up its sowing of dezinformatsiya in the runup to elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in concerted propaganda efforts to discredit and destabilise democracies.”
For me, this is one of those “if you’re not worried/outraged, you’re not paying attention” moments.
Lying and dishonesty are becoming commonplace, though they are fundamentally opposed to the tenets of a free society. The majority (more than three in four) of Americans do not believe lying is “the American way,” yet two-thirds of U.S. residents say people lie to them, at least, some of the time.
“66% of Americans, in general, think they are lied to, at least, some of the time, up from 45% thirty years ago when USA Today asked the same question.” PBS
It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit – Noël Coward
3. Buyers, and citizens, are more stressed out than ever before
What’s the impact of this post-truth world?
We need to be honest about the role of the noise being created today by the endless barrage of information we are subjected to. A constant news cycle dominates our attention, and both media sites and social media platforms incentivize outrage and extremism. It’s overwhelming.
Pew Research Center describes ours as “a culture of volume of info and spin,” and warns succinctly that “an environment of total noise spreads confusion and mistrust.”
42% of consumers in a recent study said “I don’t know which companies to trust.”
(And how could they, in such a climate?)
American Psychological Association Stress in America™ Survey found that more than half of Americans (59 percent) said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember — a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
4. This is both an opportunity and a threat.
Speaking on behalf of anyone in business, especially marketing, or the media, we can look at this in one of two ways: as a threat, or an opportunity. It certainly poses a threat to democracy.
But here’s the thing for marketers. Every business now operates within these parameters.
I continually advocate for brands who tell the truth (see my work on femvertising), question the way things are, and spark dialogue about what they could and should be. It creates real human interaction - and grants us the elusive prize of attention.
But not ONLY is truth the surest way to cut through the noise; not ONLY is it the first step towards earning trust with buyers; not ONLY might it contribute to a better perception of our industry; but it's psychologically, downright, without a doubt more effective.
Telling the truth works. It also just happens to be f*cking radical today.
Heck, our buyers are so sick of marketing hyperbole, it’s innovative just to be honest and straightforward. Doug Kessler coined the phrase of using “insane honesty” in content marketing, and shows in his excellent presentation the surprising power of showcasing a brand’s weaker points.
I especially wanted to highlight his explanation of why truth works so well against a backdrop of BS:
“When your target audience is any subset of homo sapiens, anything less than total honesty is the insane thing. Why? Because we like people we trust.”
“It makes your marketing less like marketing. It signals confidence. Attracts your ideal prospects. Focuses you on battles you can win.”
5. Truth-telling requires us to evolve.
Truth-telling requires a departure from what we were. It’s an opportunity for us to re-think what marketing is, and should be.
Truth-tellers have three things in common:
(Be honest, are those words you would normally ascribe to a business? To a marketer?)
Conviction: Honesty and truth-telling take conviction, especially when these values run counterintuitive to the role marketing has traditionally played.
This is a long-term play, not a short-term mindset. It’s not something you can back away from once you’ve made the decision to own it as a brand.
As Seth Godin recently wrote:
“Organizations and systems are more reliable, more efficient and more professional when they’re operated on principles that are actually true.”
Respect: Unlike most marketing, truth-telling requires us to respect buyers.
(For an example of traditional marketing treating buyers like sheep, see my history of how women started smoking cigarettes due to the sociopathic nephew of Sigmund Freud.)
Consider the fundamental difference between persuasion and manipulation. Persuasion is done with people, manipulation done to them. Truth-telling puts the buyer on the same playing field.
Manipulation inevitably underestimates those being coerced - and that’s how brands and leaders get in trouble when exposed.
Bravery: Whether an individual or a brand, it takes courage, bravery, and chutzpah to put unspoken truths to words, take a strong POV, and defend it both internally and in the market.
Some truth-tellers, like Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi, (that graffiti at the top of this piece is part of his activism) risk their lives to tell the truth.
“His images of the 2007–08 postelection violence brought the political class face to face with the consequences of their rhetoric, and almost ever since, he’s been campaigning to bring to light Kenya’s most uncomfortable truths, from widespread corruption to dangerous tribalism.” - Source
Mwangi's truth focused on the impunity of politicians in the face of over 1000 dead and half a million people displaced as a result of the violence they caused.
And his TED talk reveals how radical it is to expose the truth in Kenya:
“In my childhood, they taught me silence. Don't argue, do as you're told. In Sunday school, they taught me don't confront, don't argue, even if you're right, turn the other cheek.”
“We used to be told that a coward goes home to his mother. What that meant: that if you stayed out of trouble you're going to stay alive.”
Now, that’s Kenya, ruled by a near-dictator. In our system in the US of Democratic capitalism, I’d like to think, the rules are different. (For now, at least.) The wins belong to the smart and the brave and the bold. We can't afford not to stay quiet - both in marketing, and in activism. We need to hone our voice.
“In spite of being arrested, beaten up, threatened, the moment I discovered my voice, that I could actually stand up for what I really believed in, I'm no longer afraid.” - Mwangi.
Our new charter.
Today’s climate provides an opportunity for brands to lead buyers through chaos using truth as a radical North Star. To manifest this POV and win in this environment:
- Understand where buyers are in within the turmoil of your industry
- Take a bold stance in-market grounded by your unique expertise
- Have conviction in that POV over the long-haul
- Galvanize your teams to rally behind it
- Seek to lead customers through a time of chaos
And throughout it all, tell the truth.
Marketers, welcome to our new charter. After all, the truth will set you free.
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