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Why “reality apathy” is the next battle in brand reputation

By Jamie Gilpin / November 28, 2018

“How do you get people to care?”

It’s an age-old marketing challenge that’s now more complicated than ever.

Where brands once had to solve for a lack of awareness and information, they now have to solve for the opposite: information overload. And not just any information–information people don’t trust.

In a world bombarded by fake news, propaganda and misinformation, the very credibility of fact is at risk. Truth has become a moving target. As a result, consumer trust is at an all-time low.

And experts say we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. Former Chief Technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility, Aviv Ovadya, believes, “technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate it.”

Pretty soon our advancements in AI and machine learning are going to lead us to a future where words can be put–quite literally–into people’s mouths, video footage can be altered to put people in places they weren’t and bots will become so convincing they could create real cultural chaos. We see this happening already with the emergence of troubling “deep fake” videos and the significant bot influence in the most recent election.

The ensuing implications are alarming, but maybe not as much as the potential collective response–something Ovadya calls, “reality apathy.” Faced with the insurmountable task of identifying what’s real amidst near-constant misinformation, people will start to give up. Justin Hendrix, the Executive Director of NYC Media Lab, predicts, “it’ll only take a couple of big hoaxes to really convince the public that nothing’s real.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

As the lines between fact and fiction continue to fade, the demand for transparency grows stronger. And while consumers place that responsibility largely on brands–more so than family, friends and politicians–it gives us as marketers the unique opportunity to serve a critical role as truth tellers and truth finders in our respective industries. A role that is currently missing. To return to a time when a brand name and logo stood for something we could believe in.

Obviously, there’s work to be done. With the threat of a post-truth society plausibly imminent, how can your brand build the foundation and reputation of trust, honesty (and yes, transparency) you’ll need to grow and maintain your good name?

Achieve honor through honesty

As truth begins to slip out of the public’s grasp, they’ll be looking for something solid to hold onto: a track record of humility and honesty during crisis. Proof that you’re capable of owning up to your mistakes and admitting when you’re wrong.

And that’s not just a theory; it’s a fact.

Our most recent Brands Get Real report indicates markedly high percentages of consumers who reward honesty with loyalty. We found that 85% of people are more likely to give a business a second chance after a bad experience–and stick by it during a crisis–if it has a history of being transparent. And 89% of people say a business can regain their trust if it admits to a mistake and is transparent about the steps it will take to resolve the issue.

Keep in mind there still needs to be a strategy and plan in place during times of crisis or backlash. These percentages don’t give brands permission to just blindly blurt out whatever facts and opinions they have in order to make a quick response. History has shown us that a brand’s first response is often the one that sticks–and while consumers may extend grace after a botched experience, they may not be so forgiving after a botched apology.

It doesn’t always have to be a large-scale scandal either. How you respond to even the smallest customer complaints matters just as much as the big backlash. Peter Muhlmann, Founder and CEO of global online review community, Trustpilot, puts it best when he says, “Responding publicly to those who have had a negative experience with the brand is like winning the marketing lottery in the age of distrust.”

Admitting your mistakes and accepting responsibility goes hand in hand with building a strong customer community. It’s part of the process of creating those advocates who may one day be your strongest line of defense in the war on truth.

Put your fans on the front lines

Have you ever witnessed the fierce loyalty of Taylor Swift’s super fans, “Swifties?” Or Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters?” These artists, along with many other entertainers, have developed almost cult-like fan bases and followings over the years–to the point where any enemy of the artists swiftly becomes an enemy of their audiences, too.

In the event that these super fans perceive a threat against their idol’s character or career, they’re quick to assume the role of social bodyguards–rushing to their defense with impassioned replies and retweets. And while that same fierce loyalty doesn’t always lead to positive behavior, it does create an added layer of reputation protection should the stars ever find themselves the target of malicious media.

This is the kind of faithful fan base brands will need in the future should they ever become the subject of a smear campaign or targeted review tanking effort, and their credibility/quality is called into question. I love the way writer Lena Harris puts it when she describes a brand’s community of fans as a sort of “reputation protection insurance policy.”

There’s no better defense than a community of passionate customer and employee advocates who are willing to go to bat for the brands they believe in. When the public is unsure whether or not they should believe something about your brand, your super fans are the ultimate character witnesses. Focus on advocacy now to reap the benefits in the future.

But customer and employee advocates can do more than vouch for the quality of your character; they can also vouch for the quality of your product. The two most effective ways they do this is through user-generated content (UGC) and online reviews. And the key to both is authenticity.

A 2017 Stackla data report on influence in the digital age found that 60% percent of people say UGC is the most authentic form of content–three times more than content created by brands–and that social content from their friends and family impact their purchasing decisions. And while it makes sense we’d trust the opinions of our inner circle, it’s somewhat surprising when you consider that many of the users and influencers we follow, consult–and trust–online are people we don’t personally know.

Don’t underestimate the power of online reviews and the foundation of trust, quality and credibility they can build for your brand. Research shows that 91% of people regularly or occasionally read online reviews, and 84% trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. And according to Search Engine Land, 90% of customers read up to 10 reviews before deciding whether to trust a business.

Muhlmann believes, “The reviews and feedback consumers leave not only generate brand loyalty but also provide potential customers—those who don’t quite trust traditional marketing methods—with the push they need when a purchasing decision needs to be made.”

And arguably, also when a character call needs to be made.

Give CEOs a voice of truth

Despite society’s growing distrust of news media and politicians, people are still looking for institutional leaders they can count on. And while consumer trust is at an all-time low, expectations for CEOs have never been so high.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, 69% of people say one of the most
important expectations they have for a CEO is to ensure their company is trusted.

But where most industry leaders might recommend filling in the gaps of public knowledge around company and business practices, we’re now seeing a greater desire for businesses–and specifically their CEOs–to fill the gaps left by government to help effect social change.

84% of people expect CEOs to inform conversations and policy debates on issues like jobs, the economy, corruption, global warming, discrimination and healthcare. And 59% want CEOs to address these types of issues on social media specifically.

Essentially, if a CEO can effectively communicate to consumers that the company cares more about people than it does about its business, they will establish trust. But it can’t be lip service. Consumers want CEOs to not only share their company values and vision, they also want to hear about the work their company has done to benefit society.

Of course it’s not always good news they have to share. People are also holding CEOs more accountable in times of brand crisis. Luckily, CEO credibility is already up 7% from last year–a trend all brands should take advantage of when considering their crisis communication strategies. As trust continues to erode, it’s critical your CEO establish a role–and trustworthy reputation–of spokesperson/voice of the company sooner rather than later.

The Reputation Institute, a reputation measurement and management services firm, recently published its first-ever study of chief executive reputation, the Global CEO RepTrak. On the study’s findings, the Institute’s chief research officer, Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, observes, “CEOs who take a stand, who align with important public policy issues—especially related to measures about citizenship and governance—rank disproportionately higher.” Google CEO and humanitarian/activist, Sundar Pichai, tops the list, with an impressive resume of social good.

It’s quite possible that Pichai’s trustworthy reputation as a man of integrity was what protected Google’s good name when it came under fire after a former employee criticized the company’s diversity initiatives. While the negative attention was initially bad optics for the tech giant, Pichai wasted no time firing back at the employee’s accusations, quickly defending the company and boldly remaining at the the helm throughout the entire controversy.

Start now

While the notion of reality apathy may seem a ways off, it means that for now, people still care. They’re still looking for brands to believe in, and brands they can believe. It’s why we can’t wait until reality apathy begins setting in. Because by then, we’ll be fighting an uphill battle of brand reputation. Instead, do what you can now to build a foundation and tower of trust that won’t topple easily if, one day, truth does come crashing down.

Jamie Gilpin

Jamie Gilpin

is the CMO at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketing leader with demonstrated success in growing brands in the technology space through strategic positioning.
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