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Whether brutal or disarming, honesty helps restore brand trust

In my younger days somebody I knew who was sliding into oblivion through drugs and a lifestyle that required theft and serial lying, made a life-saving decision to redeem himself. It took time for him to kick his addictive habits, but strangely the most difficult was not the drugs. It was his decision to never lie again that was the most difficult. Honesty can be brutal, but he decided that while this might alienate him from friends, family and colleagues, it was the only way he could live with himself, to always tell the unbridled truth, even if it hurt people close to him.

Today consumers are demanding the same level of honesty from the organizations and brands that depend on us for their existence. The problem is, just like my friend, brands have for decades been used as shields to hide the truth and the bad habits of greedy organizations, and as a result trust has been catastrophically eroded. Trust in brands has disintegrated in recent times. The 2014 survey from the Reputation Institute found that only 15 percent of people trusted what companies communicated in their ads, and 43 percent were unsure if goods and services were of a high quality. When trust disintegrates, only the stripped back naked truth will convince us

to believe the headlines, slogans and brand promises they make. Sweeping the lies and deceit under the convenience of a catchy strapline doesn’t work anymore.

Social media pressure

The pervasiveness of social media has pressured previously trusted brands to own up to their misdemeanors. No one would argue that the power of social media has helped start-ups to build brands overnight. Equally, it can expose untruths in nano-seconds and destroy brands that waver from the truth. Ryanair, Domino’s Pizza, Nestle?, FedEx, KFC, Chrysler, McDonald’s, Dolce & Gabbana are just some of the brands that have felt the pain of social media. Just recently the UK’s most loved “cuppa” brand, PG Tips, quietly reduced the amount of tea in their little tea bags by 7 percent. They thought they would get away with it but they got found out. They justified the change with talk of a new blend and claimed that the brewing time and the results are unaffected. But that’s not the point. They could have told us and perhaps we would have been persuaded. A bit of brutal honesty might have helped.

It is fast becoming the case that if a brand is to survive and thrive it must have transparency, authenticity and provenance woven into the strands of its DNA. Transparency for obvious reasons, authenticity because fakes will get exposed and provenance because we all want to know where things come from. Whether it be the food chain, the supply chain or the company’s own provenance, consumers demand that brands expose their hard wiring in all their glorious nakedness. As author Simon Sinek’s “golden circle” tells us, start with the why and work backwards to the how and the what — always start with the why, then they’ll get it.

The power of disarming honesty

There is an interesting paradox to the rather distasteful concept of brutal honesty that takes on a rather more flavorsome meaning. Think “disarming honesty.” Honesty that is so surprising that it helps the brand to become credible and believable. Honesty that builds trust through a statement that says, “Look at me, I've got nothing to hide.”

Many will have heard the story by advertising sage Jeremy Bullmore of an Air Canada flight he was on. On landing, the aircraft slammed down onto the runway with a terrifying bang, jolting passengers and crew in their seats. Quite reasonably, the passengers waited to hear the explanation from the captain. A voice on the PA system announced, “This is Captain Johnson speaking. I’ve been flying with Canadian for over thirty years... and that was the worst fucking landing I’ve ever made!” The captain was suddenly a hero. As the passengers left the plane, they all wanted to shake his hand; they probably wanted fly with him again. In a world of woolly excuses, he’d been disarmingly honest.

While brutal honesty may be important when brands need to
say sorry, disarming honesty for some brands can be a powerful brand strategy. It’s hard not to respect Patagonia’s audacious honesty when it comes to responsible capitalism. In a world of marketing megaphones trying to shout “buy me” louder than the next, Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign on Black Friday stood out. It essentially said, “Don't buy what you don't need,” and described in detail the environmental cost that goes into one of their jackets. They even have a nudge-type button when you purchase something through their site that asks, “Are you sure you want this? Think twice before you buy.” Their endearing honesty creates an incredibly powerful bond between it and its customers, a bond that has developed into a cult-like following that has had an astonishing payback. Patagonia managed to increase annual sales from $270 million in 2006 to $600 million in 2013.

What does this tell us? Because we have been conditioned to expect brands to tell us the bare minimum and hide the truth in the “terms & conditions,” it’s sad that we feel a sense of optimism when they are disarmingly honest. I yearn for the day when honesty does not need to be disarming.


  • Does “brutal honesty” have the potential to become part of a marketer’s toolkit or just a way for brands to say sorry?
  • Will telling the truth ever catch on?
  • Authenticity, transparency and provenance are fast becoming a brand’s licence to operate.
  • The concept of “disarming honesty” is proving to be a powerful way of preserving loyalty and building value.