Why 2017 is the year brands Trump authenticity
“We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question”
When these words padded pages of political commentary back in January, they were fairly easy to miss. A blur in one of the most staggering socio-political crisis of modern times and echoing the sentiment of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, they weren’t necessarily unexpected. Nor, after an uncompromising (and messy) few months of debate resulted in one of the most controversial presidents in US history, were they a surprising stance for any politician to make.
Except, it wasn't a politician who said them.
In a lexicon fitting of a quote in a history book, the man who spoke them - Howard Schultz - is better known for running the globe’s coffee supplies than running a country (though quite how the two are different, we’re not entirely sure) as CEO of mega-chain Starbucks. But, while java and justice aren’t natural bedfellows, his condemnation on Trump’s immigration policy was bold but not isolated – and certainly not shocking.
It was one of many branded stands against his policies, taking place in the form of statements, actions and speeches. From 97 of the USA’s largest organisations openly backing a court bid against Trump’s order, to huge political statements on the world’s largest stage at the Super Bowl, if there’s one thing 2017 has made clear so far (bar the fact the weather in Scotland is even less reliable than 2016) it’s a change in the attitudes of some of the largest corporations. Brands are no longer afraid of making statements or isolating certain customers. Arguably more important, politics is no longer separate from brand identity. It, instead, helps define it.
Of course, it’s only natural that a move that threatens the very freedom of millions of people and their employers was going to create a stir with brands (2016 took too many celebrities for us to lie down over something as trivial as what's right or wrong). Some, like branding professional Geoff Cook, believe it’s the changing political tides themselves that have forced many to turn from ‘mission-driven’ to ‘activist’ in their affiliation. Others, like Cranfield University professor Paul Baines, believe it’s partly marketers jumping on a populous bandwagon. Both have a fair point. But, in reality, could the shift be a sign of something more than exceptional circumstances or exploitation opportunity alone? And should brands step up and take a stand?
It all comes down to how genuine the association is. Authenticity is key when it comes to viewpoint and a strong opinion only matters if you’re willing to back it up in everything you do. Only 1% millennials believe traditional advertising encourages them to buy and there’s a reason for that – an inherent distrust of what they’ve seen before, especially in an age where even long-held principles are being continuously exposed as unreliable. Only 4% of us can differentiate fake news from the real deal, and even the most respected news portals regularly use cherry-picked tweets in place of genuine sources for reference. It’s a terrifying fact that The Daily Mail, the most popular news outlet in the UK in terms of readership, has recently been wiped off the list of reliable sources for Wikipedia (a site not famed for accuracy itself), while 10% of American Facebook users reference the network (hailed as the worst offender of inaccurate content at the end of 2016) as where they get their information on current affairs.
Virtual reality, it seems, is more an apt a concept for 2017 than the googles and visual designs would have you believe. Particularly when you consider that by 2020, Gartner reckon at least 85% of our relationships with enterprise will be without any human interaction at all. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, chat bots, VR and programmatic bidding all pass us by without a moment’s thought, as we spend less time engaging with humans and more time speaking to computers. Brands’ key values and personality are no longer conveyed by interactions with real people on the end of the phone or in store, and key values need to work their way across every aspect of the customer experience to make up for it. To create the human, brands need to find new ways to be the human. Taking stands politically on the things that matter is one, but for it to have any impact it needs to be deeper-rooted than populous opinion alone.
The shift towards virtual interactions on a day-to-day basis comes, interestingly, at a time when the number of original posts on Facebook is down by over 21%, despite huge rises in both members and daily active users. The channel is becoming less about sharing individual, personal opinions and more about expressing identity through brand-made content; something reflected in the huge explosion of channels like Buzzfeed and The Lad Bible, the second and third most watched media properties in the world respectively. Brands aren’t just expressing their own personality in their content, they’re actively expressing their customers’ too. They need to represent their views too.
A recent study by Cohn & Wolfe revealed that 89% customers expect brands to act integrity at all times. Whether it’s through individual political circumstances or part of a wider move, authenticity is no longer a business objective. It’s a business necessity. To create the human, brands need to be the human, taking with it the inherent issues as well as the perks. To trump the political game and create genuine authenticity brands to need to create a personality that matters – not only to them, but to the people who trust in them. In Schultz’s own words, ”these uncertain times call for different measures and communication tools than we have used in the past.” Let’s just hope it’s only the communication methods, and not the amount of coffee in his world-famous lattes, that change.