Building an Honest Business: Social Media and the Case for Radical Authenticity

Before there was social media and the Internet, talking directly to customers was tough for businesses. If you wanted to get the word out about a new product, your options were limited to things like television commercials, magazine ads, and highway billboards. With access to typically, at most, a few seconds of people's attention, there was very little room for nuance. You had to condense your message into catchy one-liners and cliché visual grammar of smiles and happy households, so naturally businesses would focus on only the very best features of their products or services.

The cost of this traditional approach to communicating with customers is that it makes your company appear disingenuous. People know nothing is perfect, but with only a few TV, radio, or newspapers ads, companies don't have the luxury of complete, and consequently honest, messaging. Have you ever seen a frozen pizza ad that says, "Hey, our pizza is pretty good. The cheese is a bit stale and the vegetables are sparse, but that's about as good as frozen pizza can get, and at $5 it's much cheaper than delivery"? No, what you get is the comically insincere "It's not delivery, it's Delicio". We all know that it's frozen pizza... come off it.

What social media gives businesses is more direct and frequent access to customers than ever before. And complemented with the low-cost of producing content on the Internet, companies can now craft more honest and nuanced messages. Many marketing departments seem to be missing the point though, and sadly social media seems to be regressing more and more into the traditional model of overly curated "on-brand messaging" and coupons.

The extreme example of what I am advocating is something I call radical authenticity - being completely forward about the inner workings of not only your product but also your business. Where is your product made? Do you treat your employees well? Do you use quality inputs? I argue that even if the answers to all these questions aren't always flattering to your business, assuming you have reasonable explanations for your practices, the goodwill resulting from absolute honesty can pay off.

Even before the rise of social media, management researchers had been exploring the importance of experience and authenticity. James H Gilmore and Joseph Pine have authored two books on the subject: The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage and Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. They essentially argue that people, especially youth, are better at sensing "hype" and increasingly gravitate toward "real" experiences. Though new with respect to its application in marketing, this idea stretches far back to philosophers like Jean Baudrillard.

Let's face it, we are a growingly skeptical bunch. The most coveted advertising demographic is people aged 18-35. This is a generation skeptical of big business like none other. From Mr. Burns to Kenneth Lay, conspiring businessmen, both real and fictional, have taught us to raise an eyebrow to the sweet-talk of suits and dismiss their more insidious advertising advances with caustic expressions like Two C's in a K. Customers are a click away from fact-checkers, consumer advocacy groups, and evangelical bloggers. By being forward with information your customers can already access, you build trust. And when a time comes where you can brag about why your product really is great, it is all the more believable of a claim.

McDonalds' recent Q&A campaign is an example of companies experimenting with this direction. What makes McDonalds so popular is value. They don't make the best burgers, and they don't use the best or healthiest ingredients. What they do well is sell burgers people like, with a very consistent product and service experience across their stores.

When asked "Why does your food look different in advertising than it does in stores?", the McDonalds Q&A team created a video sharing how their burgers are prepared for ads and effectively admit that while they dress up their food for the media, the exact same ingredients are used. We all knew this already. Hearing McDonalds be authentic about the shortcomings we were all fully aware of doesn't hurt our perception of their brand - it strengthens it.

McDonalds is still clearly just beginning to play with this idea. There are things they are not answering like why some people seem to feel so tired after eating their food, and how the mass consumption of meat affects the environment. Perhaps consumers aren't ready for that level of radical authenticity - or perhaps businesses haven't yet refined their practices to support it. Either way, I believe we are on an inevitable path where authenticity (and transparency) will become more important than ever. Businesses that use digital tools to adopt it now will ultimately prevail, even if that means revealing a few unsightly cobwebs in the meantime.