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30 May 2019


Digital - Branding


Red Pill or Blue Pill

30 May 2019

Author: Charles Lavoie

Fantasy or Reality: Are brands telling the truth?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a digital charter to fight extremism and misinformation on social media. He believes that social media and tech companies have “failed their users”. If politicians, government officials, journalists, social media influencers and even our close family and friends benefit from extremism and misinformation who is responsible for defining what is truth and punishing others for abusing our trust?

As journalists and newspapers publish more and more information over social media and apps they tend to be rewarded for more sensational and less factual reporting. The definition of misinformation and related penalties are often left in a grey zone. How can we expect content creators, whether they are individuals, organizations, brands or agencies, to adhere to new framework that hope to eliminate fake news and distortions to reality?

Fake News – Source: Unsplash

PBB is a Beijing based cross-border branding and design agency serving both international and Chinese clients. We work with different versions of the truth on a daily basis. Each of our clients has unique methods for determining and presenting truth and our staff comes from several different countries and across China reflecting divergent local ways of listening to and accepting the truth. Without trust and a group desire to do and understand the right thing, we would have little chance for success.

“Truth as a cultural concept knows many different interpretations such as ‘truth is a lie repeated long enough’, ‘truth is just an illusion’ or the downright cynical ‘truth doesn’t exist’.” – Dr. Martina Olbertova

2018 marked a turning point in the public’s mistrust for foreign social media. In China, this mistrust of traditional news source, combined to the spreading of fake products and brands has already been influencing the way branding and communications is done. As this trend grows, brand managers are facing difficult choices.

“Consumers are experiencing a crisis of faith. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, today only 52 percent of global respondents trust businesses.”

Internet Transparency – Source: Unsplash

At PBB, our brand strategy always aims to start with the product and services and find existing elements and features which can be used as brand assets to connect both emotionally and logically with the target audience, while creating differentiation from the competition.

Before developing an effective brand strategy, slogan or campaigns, we try to sit with our clients to really understand the truth of their products and service values. As we are not technical experts in some of the categories we work in, we are often faced with the dilemma of knowing what is actually true or not. Is there a real science behind the fact that this product makes your skin better? Does this product really help your digestion? Is this really better quality?

Fake Medication – Source: Adweek

While critical thinking is an important feature of any competent agency, our ultimate role is to help brands improve their images and to sell more. In a dynamic of mistrust, the challenge is not really about delivering the truth, but rather about delivering authenticity and telling compelling stories. As Branding is often a fusion of fantasy and reality, brand authenticity is vulnerable to criticism. Just like brands, most of the truths humans live for are a fusion of reality in compelling narratives. Beauty, Health, Success, Relationships are all good examples of concepts in which we may build our own truth based on the imagined world we hope to live in.

Brand Fantasy: If nothing is true, everything is true. (If nothing is real, everything is real.)

Red Bull Campaign – Source: Deviant Art

Many brands are able to achieve success by focusing exclusively on aspirations, dreams and emotional benefits. Research shows that consumers don’t trust advertising and brands, governments and politicians, friends an family. If you distrust most people most of the time how to you choose brands? People tend to pick the most confident and focused brands. Ignoring reality and focusing on fun and adventure has proven to be rather successful for some brands including Red Bull, Mini, Fila and Absolut.

The sales of brands like Nike, which have built a fantasy around values like courage and performance instead of talking about shoes and materials, prove that humans are still very emotional when it comes to purchasing products they wear and sports they follow. Other new brands like Kylie Cosmetics and Tarte have been widely successful by inventing and promoting new fantasy driven standards of fast beauty rather than focusing on product benefits. In China, watch brands like Rolex and Panerai continue to be successful using unrealistic and extravagant images of success and aspirational lifestyles.

Brand Reality: You want the truth? Let us create one for you.

Calsberg Ad | Source: Calsberg Pilsner

Inventing super real benefits that are not based on actual consumers needs has enabled big successes for premium and luxury brands. Carlsberg recently launched a new digital campaign claiming that it was “Probably not the best beer in the world”, using a light and apologetic tone to acknowledge that the company could do better and would do better. In crowded categories with fantasy such as beer, the ad has received a wide coverage and mostly positive feedback from consumers in Europe. In China, Niu has grown very successfully by releasing quality electric bicycles and products while keeping their branding and communication very entertaining and adding humour to consumer needs. Another more traditional Baijiu brand like HongXin 红星 have maintained their successful in a declining industry by romanticizing and celebrating the conservative and traditional lifestyles of their aging customers.

As new regulations and market controls are being implemented, it will be interesting to see how brands will position themselves against the demand for regulated and policed truth. While there are already existing laws that force advertising to stay close to facts, should we expect regulators and consumers to become even more critical towards brands who play with the truth and embrace fantasy? Will consumers become more critical or will they prefer to focus on entertainment value?

Headline: Consistency is key to authenticity

As an agency, our role is to understand and analyze the aspirations, dreams, fears and pushbacks from both regulators and consumers and help our client position their product. It does appear to us that in the eyes of consumers, truth has more to do with consistency than with reality. “Consistency is key to authenticity. In today’s fragmented media environment, brand messaging often varies from source to source.” – Peter Minnium, President Ipsos

Whether a brand message is more geared towards fantasy or reality seems like have little impact on its authenticity. But if a brand is unclear about what it is and what it stands for, it risks creating a trust issue, especially in this era of skepticism. Ironically, this happened to Trudeau himself a few months ago, when his values of integration and diversity were compromised as he and his family dressed up using stereotypical Indian costumes.

Hence, it appears true to say that a “Truth is a lie repeated long enough’ and/or “Truth is a salty snack we prefer to eat than a healthy meal of Truth.”