In truth, I picked up my copy of the book “The Post Truth-Business: How to rebuild brand authenticity in a distrusting world” – by Sean Pillot de Chenecey, in response to an old marketing trick: “Buy one, get one half price”. I’m decidedly not a branding and marketing expert, but the title intrigued me. The challenge of living in a distrusting post-truth world affects us in all walks of life, as much in my own field of governance, compliance and ethics, as in our politics and society in general.
I do not believe I am courting too much controversy to argue that as a planet and as a society, we are facing stark and divisive challenges. #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion, the polarization of politics, School Strike for Climate, the Gillets Jaunes; they are all recent manifestations of public frustration with suppression and/or inaction in the facing of critical change.
As much as we try to have a sensible debate on the way forward, we do not seem interested in listening to the ideas of others – we all just want to communicate our own. If we believe we have worthwhile ideas, then we have to find ways to gain an audience, and then convince them we are to be trusted. Our message must resonate with our audience to engage them, and be believable to convince them. I reasoned that if branding is about the creation of a message, and marketing is about communicating that message in the form of a call to action (buy a product, for example), then there might be lessons to be learned from this book; one of the few that I have seen that tries to deal with the challenge in a hands-on, practical manner. Sean Pillot de Chenecey himself explains his drive to write the book stemmed from the fact that there seemed to be none other on the market. In short, and if you wish to read no further, I’m glad I bought the book.
The book has a solid red line running through it and is a coherent exposé as a result. His writing style is relaxed, if at times a little wordy – I admit to the occasional skim-reading.
As I read it, it sets out to answer three major questions:
- How did we arrive in this post-truth era, and now that we are in it, how dire are the consequences?
- How can we repair the damage inflicted on our businesses and society from a branding perspective?
- What is the new paradigm (of branding and marketing strategy) for success in a digitized, transparent world?
Sean takes us on a brief history of the bending of truth, from Plato with his “noble lie” (the art of selective truth), to the more recent marketing practice of spin and distraction in the attempt to differentiate product and increase sales. Corporate history, old and recent, have shown us that the stereotypical “have I got a deal for you” car salesman, is in fact not restricted to used car showrooms. In a global market, in a digital world, there are a regrettably high number of companies who believe that targeting sales towards global, niche audiences and pandering to their desires (realistic or not) is a model for business success. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is but an expression of this mindset, albeit that in that case the mission was in the pursuit of political power rather than commercial profit.
Sean leaves us in no doubt as to the thickness of the infosmog created by institutionalized and organized misinformation. The consequences, in terms of mistrust and disengagement with business and institutions, are merely amplified by social media, which feeds, click by click, on speculative rumour, entertaining speculation, drama, and our own desire for confirmation that we have control over our lives and choices. Alas, Sean plunges us into the depths of despair, before he starts to reveal what he believes is a possible light at the end of the tunnel.
It is in the eradication of trust that we might finally see #FalseProphets, the purveyors of alternative facts and fake news, be held to account and ostracized. Social Media may be the friend of bullies and enemies of choice when misapplied, but eventually, Sean argues, the transparency it imposes will pinpoint the abusers, reveal their failure to keep false promises and eventually destroy their reputation (of individual or product) – if consumers no longer believe in the brand promise and marketing claims of producers or politicians (and platforms like Trip Advisor and Glassdoor are increasingly effective), then employees and consumers alike will look for choices where authenticity might be easier to detect and verify. Even big and global businesses will have to look to the real purpose of their organisations and seek to discover what it actually is. To quote a mantra of mine, profit is not an objective, it is merely a performance indicator as to how well the business is producing value for its clients and society. It is not uncommon to encounter business which engages in “purpose washing”, looking for stories of values and purpose which fit the product – when it is the product that needs to fit the purpose for which the organisation has been established in the first place.
As the reestablishment of trust becomes paramount for the continued success and survival of the business, Sean argues that organisational purpose needs to be identified, properly understood and integrated into everything that the organisation does – the search for a “Brand Soul” is launched, and once found it can/should not be separated from business strategy. Complete transparency and authenticity will be demanded by all stakeholders – and innovations like blockchain will provide the tools to achieve it.
Neither Sean, nor anyone else can confidently predict the new paradigm that will guide us into a world of accountable, sustainable actions. However, he does a good job of describing a world where business and politics have to embrace the power of emotional engagement with stakeholders, in a manner which is believable to them – in other words: authentic, visible and emotive. Let’s hope he is right, and that it happens sooner rather than later.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey has produced a book that intelligently ties the many threads of current events, research and theory into a coherent story. His perspective is no doubt founded on many years of experience as a consultant within the field of branding and marketing. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, whereas his views and interviews are easily accessed online, his background including such things as academic credentials are more difficult to find. In the end, it doesn’t seem to detract from the authenticity of his message and his ability to tell a story. The Post-Truth Business is an enjoyable and easy read, and has given me the value I purchased the book for – food for thought.