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Fake Authority Won’t Help Brands During the Era of Mistrust



INFLUENCER: You can’t fake-smile a brand back to health, writes Grey New York's Matt Moyer

Fake Authority Won’t Help Brands During the Era of Mistrust

Often, brands try to position themselves as familiar, aspirational authorities in consumers’ lives - a kind of cooler older sibling who isn’t bothered by the 'my phone didn’t charge' nonsense of everyday life. Because they supposedly have easy answers.

“Want to express your complex identity? Do it with your personalised, fast food sandwich choice.”

“Want to connect to someone for love and a relationship? Use our phone service.”

“Want to fix, prioritise and create order in your whole life? Buy containers from us. Duh.”

It’s a dated approach, but a reliable one. If you want this big life change, buy a simple smaller thing. You know this work, because it typically comes to life through wordy formulas like:  “Do___” “Be____” or “Get____.” Easy. Now smile.

There are so many reasons why assumed trust and comfort on the part of brands won’t fly - our social media culture certainly one being of them - but the strongest influences may have to do with the declining trust in just about everything. According to a poll taken by Gallup last year, confidence in institutions from organised religion to organised labour to banks has dropped significantly in the past 40 years. Trust is on especially shaky grounds these days, with people gravitating toward the truthiness they feel most comfortable with, all while watching scandals play out 24/7. 

It’s left audiences feeling sceptical, and deaf to language that feels remotely detached. Why are brands smiling on their pedestals, while their audiences are furrowing brows?

This disconnect may be what’s moved some smart brands toward a much more conversational approach. One where they’re not the aspirational authority on whatever it is they’re supposed to be an authority on, but where they’re more in the trenches with the audience - as a fellow fan, or bystander, or someone who simply replies back on Twitter. These are brands who acknowledge uncertainty, instead of flashing a fake smile at it.

Droga5’s work for the The New York Times reflects this approach. At a time when truth in media is being questioned on all fronts, the Times could have taken a the old-fashioned 'we’ve been at this for a while' stance to claw back some credibility. They could have built a campaign that reminds everyone how they’ve long been regarded as the national newspaper of record, or they could have discussed the countless wrongdoings they’ve uncovered over their 160-year existence. They could have gone with a more aggressive way in, attacking news outlets who are more concerned with creating prime time celebrities than with crafting informative pieces of journalism.

But they didn’t. 

The work avoids any tone of self-importance, and instead brings audiences into war zones, refugee camps and stacks of declassified documents. Through journalists sharing how they pursue the truth, we see the Times as less of an institution, and more as a group of passionate people trying to get to the bottom of things. 

The brand confronts what’s going on, instead of shielding itself with rose-coloured glasses. No smiles, all authenticity.

The tone works because it acknowledges the Times’ place in a changing media landscape. Self-awareness is essential, and a brand that lacks it will find it’s difficult to take on a relatable tone. Case in point? Facebook.

Facebook was slow to acknowledge their role in election meddling. The story quickly became about how the social media giant went from being a goofy way to connect with people, to a data-hording institution that undermines democracies and enables hatred. Things didn’t get much better when they launched the 'Here Together' work last year. It was part of a broader effort to tell us that Facebook is like you, and it’s frustrated with what’s happened to Facebook. But the aw-shucks vibe didn’t work, especially since the effort launched immediately after Zuckerberg testified before the most loathed institution of all: Congress.

Facebook is a reminder that for a brand to be credible, it has to be truthful about its wrongdoing. You can’t fake-smile a brand back to health. Denial is the opposite of authenticity.

Netflix doesn’t have the nation-crumbling power of Facebook, but it could easily be seen as another ethically-challenged institution lurking in wait in Silicon Valley. Maybe this is one reason why the decision-makers behind the brand have kept it squarely-focused on entertainment. The tone, which lives primarily in social, gives Netflix an “I’m an entertainment fan just like you” brand voice. It works… for the most part, although it’s created some awkward moments when announcing show cancellations. It’s difficult to tell fellow fans that you had to cancel a show because the costs didn’t justify the benefits.

Brands need a sense of optimism, but they must be truthful and ready to confront reality. For a brand to simply smile in the face of mistrust is lazy, and at worse, can come back to bite them in the ass later. Fortunately, ads have logos, so you know who is speaking to you. And in an era of mistrust, it’s nice to know exactly where the bullshit is coming from.

Matt Moyer is creative director at Grey

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Grey New York, Fri, 17 May 2019 09:19:59 GMT