Brands beyond a post-truth world

BRANDS BEYOND A POST-TRUTH WORLD

Why marketers and agencies need to break with the paradigm of emotion centricity

By Adrián Mediavilla, Head of Planning at Sra. Rushmore

Abstract

I believe that, in order to differentiate undifferentiated products, marketing created a communications model where emotion is more important than reason. This model was embraced by American presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who thought of himself as a brand and led a successful campaign built around one single emotion: rage. Trump’s victory marks the decadence of the emotion-centric model as it mutates into post-truth, a paradigm where fact simply becomes irrelevant. The paradox is, while people quit fact-checking politicians altogether, they’re increasingly likely to fact-check products before buying them. Hence, my answer is a new model for brands where authenticity comes first and truth matters once again.

A far-fetched promise

The main reason why the American people chose Donald Trump as their President is status. They did not vote for Mr Trump because they believe their country will be better off with him in office. Americans picked Donald Trump because he made them feel high in status. Big. Important. And any other reason to vote for a candidate –ideology, policies, merit- went right behind.

Trump had a compelling unique single proposition: he would create jobs in America. In fact, he would create jobs for Americans. More specifically, 25 million new jobs within the timeframe of a two-term presidency.

The now elect President of the United States made one very simple promise: to restore the status of former blue collar workers. By doing just that, he was directly speaking to the middle class that had been squeezed between the growth of the super rich and the relocation of jobs to foreign countries. He did not waste time walking the voters through the complex math of what carrying away such an idea implies. He just promised to make them feel important once again, and that was that.

Of course there was only one caveat: when experts checked on Mr Trump’s plan, the arithmetic did not really work. As The New York Times flagged1, U.S. demographics alone are expected to create just 7 million workers. To hit the 25 million mark, Americans would have to work to a much older age. Productivity would need to skyrocket. Alternatively, a final option would be to dramatically increase immigration levels, which of course contradicts Mr Trump’s own policy.

So the 25 million newly created jobs seemed like a far-fetched promise at best.

And yet, Donald Trump will be sitting in the Oval Office come January 2017. How is that even possible? The answer lies in the word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries2: post-truth.

[Post truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.]

Mr Trump is the leading exponent of “post-truth” politics—a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact. Crucially, post-truth also means that truth is something only revealed a posteriori, almost as an afterthought. So the thought process of Trump voters went something like: “We’re screwed anyway, so let’s shake up the establishment by voting for Trump, then we’ll give him four years to see if he can really change things, and only then we’ll care about whether what he promised in the campaign was actually true”.

By choosing Trump as their Commander in Chief, the American people effectively chose wishful thinking over reality.

They chose a world where emotion trumps reason.

But hang on a minute, where did we hear that before?

Brands and the emotion versus reason conundrum

For years marketers and advertising agencies have been banging on the need to create and foster emotional connections between consumers and brands. One of the largest agency networks in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi, even built their business in the last decade around the notion of Lovemarks3. According to this theory, consumers are “loyal beyond reason” to certain brands that create deeper emotional connections with them.

Because of the automatization of production processes around the world it has become harder and harder to create unique products. When similar ingredients, processes and standards are applied to the development of competitive products, the result is an undifferentiated marketplace. The idea of emotion-centric brands was therefore created as a marketing response to the commoditization of entire categories.

A clear example of this situation is cars, where manufacturing groups are increasigly using the same platforms to build different models across different brands. This effectively means that a Fiat 500 and a Ford Ka are essentially the same car under the hood. This logic also applied to the Toyota iQ and the Aston Martin Cygnet where the only difference was a mere $30,000 price hike between models4.

Commoditization is all the more obvious when we look at fast moving consumer goods, where distributor brands have seen sales skyrocket in recession-hit markets like Spain. The reason is simple: when the money got tight, given indistinguishable functional benefits consumers decided to put rational attributes (ie price) ahead of emotion-driven arguments like brand love.

Of course brands were first created as a ways for producers to stamp their own product so that consumers could easily identify and purchase them –and not the competitor’s.

However in the second half of the twentieth century with consumers increasingly struggling to see the difference between two competing brands, marketers kept digging for intangible values to differentiate theirs. And then along with their creative and media agencies, they injected billions of dollars to make sure those brands had the greatest possible chance to resonate with consumers.

That is how most marketers started looking for emotions they could somehow attach their brands to. In the car category, for instance, rational arguments like fuel efficiency, 0 to 60 mph acceleration or safety features vanished from the headlines in the ads. Instead, brands started using heart-warming attributes like peace of mind, love or change to market their models.

And yet, it worked: as the classic paper by Les Binet and Peter Field “The long and short of it” puts it, consumers love emotional campaigns so much that, in particular highly-creative ones are capable of producing more powerful long-term business effects than rational persuasion campaigns5.

Was there any hard fact to substantiate one or another emotional attribute? In most cases, none whatsoever. With the rise of emotional advertising, fact had effectively become of secondary importance for brands and consumers all over the world.

By turning product truths into an afterthought, marketing professionals effectively created and implemented across all media channels a post-truth vision of the world.

“Make America Great Again!”

Like that, with an exclamation mark at the end. That was Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan. The whole idea behind Trump’s strapline was a perfect match for the nostalgia-driven mindset of the American working class. While it’s true that Barack Obama’s “Hope” slogan in 2008 was probably the peak of emotion-driven political campaigning, Trump’s exclamation mark added an extra layer of drama and urgency to the whole equation.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton promise stumbled. Her lack of clarity was so obvious that Wikipedia offers not one but three different slogans for her campaign6.

First she went with “Stronger Together”, which was very factual: if the fifty-two states of United States of America stay interlinked they will have a bigger influence. However, the unity of the country was never an issue for American voters. The unity of the USA was never in question, and Hillary’s slogan sounded like she was promising more of the same: American establishment galore.

Enter Hillary’s second slogan: “I’m With Her”, a by-the-book effort that hinted at the unprecedented scenario of having a woman as President of the United States. While egalitarianism and women empowerment are strong arguments in 2016, they have two downsides: first, these are very progressive values, common among American intellectual elites in the coasts but perceived as a threat in the most conservative states of the union.

Second, it was just too obvious for some of the electorate: while everyone knew that Hillary Clinton was, indeed, a woman, this needed not become the main message of the campaign. It probably was a nice-to-have attribute for most voters, but never a key reason to vote for any of them. Maybe that explains why Obama’s campaigns never pitched him as the Afro-American candidate.

With market research likely spitting out the above arguments, Hillary Clinton’s team went for an all-out emotional slogan: “Love Trumps Hate”. It’s a blatant effort to tap into the most basic and marketed emotion of them all plus a direct torpedo at Hillary’s rival for the White House. It obviously did not work, maybe because it was released too late. Eight years and a global recession too late?

While most political slogans end up being a meaningless formula that simply underlines the name of the candidate –Hillary Clinton’s certainly did-, “Make America Great Again” summarized the whole campaign of Donald Trump, encompassing the what, the why and crucially, the for whom. Trump’s nearly 63 million voters never minded about the how.

The American people just like to be entertained, whether it’s reality or fiction. And Donald Trump knew that only too well.

Enter branded content: where ads and editorial collide

Something else happened in the weeks that followed the US election: the University of Stanford released the results of a study7 that attempted to judge news literacy among students, particularly on social networks, news sites and blog posts. A jaw-dropping 80 percent of students thought an ad labeled “sponsored content” was a news story.

Researchers found that students have trouble telling the difference between news stories and native ads, and figuring out where the information came from in the first place. They summarized their ability to judge the nature of the information online in one word: “bleak”.

So if a group of well-educated digital natives cannot tell the difference between information and persuasion, where does that leave the rest of humanity? Chances are that the figure is higher than 80 percent.

In fact, sponsored or branded content is one of the ways originally devised by brands to emotionally resonate among consumers. The principle of branded content is that consumers -particularly digital natives- would welcome a less intrusive approach where brands chose not to push advertising onto them but rather create stories people would naturally levitate toward.

Branded content quickly became a new form of commercial communications on its own, with what was called “native ads” being increasingly adopted by brands mainly with the help of popular online publishers like Facebook, Buzzfeed or Vice. Actually it is expected that native ads will make up 63 percent of mobile display ad spend by 20208.

What the study done by the University of Stanford shows is that marketers and agencies have become so good at creating ads that look like editorial content that consumers are struggling to make the difference.

So what happens when people cannot tell what’s true on social media and a political candidate starts behaving like a brand? Spoiler alert: a runaway success.

In Facebook We Trust

It is no secret that Donald Trump set up a crack team to lead his campaign online from San Antonio, Texas. This team made a bet on Facebook and used it in two ways. Primarily, Facebook became a revenue stream to channel donations from Trump’s supporters, ultimately collecting $275 million dollars9. But more importantly, Facebook became Trump’s number one advertising platform.

This would be no news –Obama was the first to show the power of social networks to change politics- if it wasn’t for the fact that the strategy of Trump’s campaign was to shrink the electorate. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” said a senior Trump official to BusinessWeek.“They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”.

The Trump campaign used data to target African Americans and young women with $150 million dollars of Facebook and Instagram advertisements in the final weeks of the election9. Only on the day of the third presidential debate in October, the team ran 175,000 variations of their ads10.

From the get-go Trump’s team treated its leader like a brand, and so they leveraged Facebook sophisticated advertising tools including Facebook Dark Posts, Facebook Audience-Targeting, and Facebook Custom Audiences from Customer Lists not only to encourage their own voters but more importantly to discourage democrats from going to the polls to vote.

Their strategy paid off handsomely: on Election Day, Democratic turnout in battleground was surprisingly weak.

There was a third, non-official way, in which Facebook helped turn the tables in Mr Trump’s favor: it became a echo chamber for Trump’s post-truth politics.

Since the moment he joined Twitter in 2009, Donald J. Trump created a raw persona that tweeted like an angry white male in his sixties (which he actually is). So after years of building an online audience, he was able to effectively turn that rage into the key emotion at the heart of his campaign.

During the campaign, Trump would often tweet untrue statements that would quickly be flagged by traditional media like The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Guardian.

Trump’s post-truth tweets spun into a series of fake news sites that fabricated pro-conservative stories and circulated them on Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many of them got hundreds of thousands, even millions, of shares, likes, and comments.

While Hillary Clinton’s campaign used fact-checking as its first line of defense, Trump’s supporters were reading this type of headlines, getting an emotional reaction, and passing them along. According to Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, anger, anxiety, and other so-called “high arousal emotions” are among the most important ingredients to virality online, way more  than low-key emotions like sadness and contentment.

Of course, Facebook’s own algorithm does not reward accuracy, but virality, and this time the scale of the intoxication was unprecedented: according to Pew Research, 44 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook11.

pj_2016-05-26_social-media-and-news_0-03

In reality, Trump’s team invented nothing. With political candidates commoditized, they decided to treat theirs like a brand, so they simply took an existing media platform that is 100% founded by advertising like Facebook, applied the logic of emotion-centric marketing to their candidate, sat back and waited.

Through an emotion-first campaign built on anger and post-truth and rolled-out on Facebook, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America.

How brands need to change –and change the world

Let’s face it: we’re now living in a post-truth world that brands helped create and grow. A world where emotion -in particular negative emotion- is more powerful than reason or fact. A world where people take (and share) what they see on their social feeds at face value, no questions asked.

However we also live in a world where most consumers check online reviews before they purchase a product12. Sometimes, they even check online reviews on their mobile phones while in-store.

So the paradox is that, while people deliberately decided not to fact-check the arguments given by Donald Trump on his presidential campaign, they are now increasingly fact-checking the products before buying them.

For marketing, this effectively means that no matter how good your (emotional) advertising may be, mediocre products that get poor user reviews won’t last long.

Based on this single fact, brands need to reinvent themselves. Marketing can no longer be a separate function within companies that -along with ad agencies- builds brands around emotions tenuously connected to the brand. Brands need to break with the current emotion paradigm and embrace authenticity.

More specifically, the way to create truly great brands moving forward is by linking up marketing with product design. Marketers and agencies need to understand that the product itself is the number one business tool they have, and innovation the new form of marketing. Companies need to focus on building extraordinary products with extraordinary stories from scratch.

That is the only way to create a powerful, authentic narrative for brands. One that will create unique innovative products that will not need traditional marketing to make them look different in the eyes of consumers. One that will create fair brands that consumers will naturally trust and choose. The kind of brands that get brilliant reviews online because people love using them and letting their friends know about them.

Crafting extraordinary products with powerful narratives will require:

  1. An outstanding understanding of the company: from the founders to the reason why they exist in the first place and how their manufacturing process works.
  2. A clear grasp of the motivations that drive the behavior of real people out there: crafting extraordinary stories can only happen when brands connect with broader conversations that are happening in the culture.
  3. An organisational shift where creativity makes its way upstream, all the way to the top of organisations. Creativity has to be at the very foundation of business, not just as an afterthought to market existing products.

Only when this three changes happen we will be ready to deliver extraordinary products that will satisfy the needs of customers in truly different, innovative ways. Brands so amazingly real that neither marketing will need to embrace fake emotions nor consumers will want to flee reality ever again.

Brands helped created the emotion paradigm that eventually led to a post-truth world. Now brands have the opportunity to help create a new world where authenticity, innovation and fairness come first.

 

References:

1) Irwin, N., The Arithmetic in Donald Trump’s Jobs Plan Doesn’t Really Work published by The New York Times on September 16, 2016

2) Oxford Dictionaries: Word of the Year 2016 is…

3) Saatchi & Saatchi: About Lovemarks

4) Fingleton, E., Same Car, Different Brand, Hugely Higher Price: Why Pay An Extra $30,000 For Fake Prestige? Published by Forbes, 2013.

5) Binet, L. and Field, P. The Long and Short of It, IPA 2010

6) Wikipedia: Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign 2016, retrieved in December 2016

7) Stanford History Education Group, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning published November 22, 2016

8) Marvin, G., Native ads to make up 63 percent of mobile display ad spend by 2020, Facebook & IHS study finds, published by Marketing Land on April 5, 2016

9) Winston, J., How the Trump Campaign Built an Identity Database and Used Facebook Ads to Win the Election published on Startup Grind, Medium, November 18, 2016

10) Lapowski, I., Here’s how Facebook actually won Trump the presidency, published by Wired on November 15, 2016

11) Gottfried, J., and Shearer, E., News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, published by Pew Research Center on May 26, 2016

12) Nielsen Global Connected Commerce Survey, February 3, 2016

 

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