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Playing for popularity


Playing for popularity

Does trust really matter in a post-truth world?

Emily James

Chief Strategy Officer



Donald Trump was recently described to me as the greatest marketer of all time. While that suggestion might be met with cynicism, there is no doubt that his election campaign was both brilliantly conceived and expertly executed, particularly his use of personalised messaging via social media.

A 2015 Newsweek article described Trump’s debating strategy as built on emotion, not reason. He positioned himself as the nation’s hero to “make America great again” without ever really needing to explain how. Many waited patiently for Trump's campaign to fail, believing that fact and reason would put an end to his ambitions. They didn't. What Trump realised, as many others missed, was that the new media landscape had opened the door to a new era in politics. An era where truth is no longer king.

Adapting to a post-truth world

It’s worth considering why “post-truth” has become the defining term of our time1. The extreme fragmentation of media, and the associated decline of traditional “gatekeeper” brands, has led to content overload and compromised people’s ability to judge validity. An internet business model that incentivises “clickbait” communications ensures that sensationalism is valued over fact. Algorithms have become our content editors and decide what we see, based on what drives engagement, rather than what is right or true. Digital echo chambers create “social proof” for untruthful content. This is the system that has enabled post-truth to flourish.

Many people argue that in this world of fake news and half-truths, brands can only thrive by elevating themselves above the fray, putting trust and purpose above all else and embracing transparency in everything they do. And, for many brands, this remains critical to their role in customers lives. Analysing UK data from 1,400 brands ranked according to “trust”, the top 10 percent include many admired British brands that have made trust central to their offer2. For example, BBC News is trusted all over the world as the independent voice of truth in news. John Lewis is trusted as the hallmark of quality and service in retail.

The emerging trust paradox

Analysing the bottom 10 percent of trusted brands in the UK suggests that there is another path to success. It is amongst the UK’s least trusted brands that we find many of the most talked-about success stories of our time: Facebook, Tinder, Red Bull, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Uber, Snapchat, LadBible.

The tension between trust and popularity among these brands is stark. Facebook is in the bottom 10 percent of trusted brands in the UK, yet more than a third of UK adults use the brand as their main source of news. Tinder is less trusted than Vladimir Putin, yet more than 50 million people around the world are trusting it to introduce them to potential future partners. This is the emerging trend in brand success – usage in the absence of trust.

Two marketing models

These differing strategic approaches lead to different sets of marketing behaviours, but there is often commonality in the end point – high penetration and frequency of usage. The marketing behaviours for each approach are illustrated below.


Truth Behaviours






Post-Truth Behaviours




Purposeful: Encapsulating the         essence of why the brand exists







Provocative: Getting the brand noticed and talked about



Centralised communications: One core idea, many facets                         








Localised communications: Many ideas, always in beta                         



Top down: Brand dictates the core narrative and associated imagery                         






Bottom up: Community of users         drives the narrative and shapes the brand





Earning loyalty: investment at a         brand level to drive commitment







Designing frequency: investment at a product level to drive “addiction”


During the US election, the Trump campaign epitomised many of these post-truth behaviours. And despite being in the bottom 1 percent of trusted brands (in the UK, admittedly) he became the most powerful man in the world, perfectly illustrating the trust-popularity paradox.

Implications for marketers

Established brands have been adopting increasingly purposeful positions over recent years, helping build meaning and truth in the minds of consumers. This approach has been linked to commercial success and creates benefits at an individual, community and societal level. But when a disruptor brand competes by adopting a more provocative and potentially more popular position, what defensive measures should be taken?

Actively eroding trust would be detrimental for any brand that has invested time and resource in building it. But analysing the relationship between trust and popularity suggests that, at least while post-truth flourishes, perhaps trust is less important than it used to be. Adopting some of the behaviours of brands thriving in the absence of trust might give established brands the solution to “making their brand great again”.


1         Post-truth         was Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2016.


2         Analysis         was conducted on Y&R’s Brand         Asset Valuator quantitative database, 2017