Trust in the Age of Branding

Centuries from now, when an advanced, alien culture unearths the relics of our age, they’ll no doubt rub a tentacle across their horns in bewilderment. “Wow,” one entity will communicate to his fellow researcher through a pungent release of ammonia, “these people really, really liked to sell stuff.”

My editor at my first reporting job gave me what remains, to this day, one of the best pieces of practical advice I’ve ever gotten: if you ever desperately need to reach a human being at a company, navigate the automated telephone system to accounts payable. It’s the brain stem of any business, the part of the company that simply cannot be removed, outsourced, or surgically extracted, even if the company long ago stopped producing anything more complex than a dull, almost life-like moan. “I’ve always loved Twinkies,” we’ll say, unable to meet its dead-eyed gaze, preferring to imagine it in the prime of life, a three-piece-suited fairy filling our 10-year-old hearts with joy and sugar. And, in spite of the fact that we haven’t actually eaten a Twinkie in over a decade, we’ll make sure the feeding tube stays firmly entrenched in its esophagus, because, well, Twinkies.

Of course, it’s not the weird near-cake that we missed during its brief absence, it’s the idea of enjoying a self-indulgent snack we consumed a few times when we were babies, and damn anyone who would slap a Twinkie out of a baby’s chubby little hand!

One of the old saws you’ll hear about Millenials — other than they’re entitled, buried in their phones, and poor — is that they are less trusting than previous generations. That this is the generation who reached adulthood in a social media culture that promised unprecedented platforms self-expression is probably not a coincidence. That those platforms were quickly seized upon by would-be employers as personal-reputation minefields meant that suddenly we were all in sales, each of us managing a very flawed and poorly executed brand. You weren’t just sharing, you were being consumed by an audience.

What many find distasteful about sales is the disconnect between slick branding and the actual value provided by the product. Advertisers figured out long ago that selling a product on its functionality was far less effective than associating a positive emotional vibe with it. You’re not buying sparkling liquid candy, you’re buying a refreshing panacea enjoyed by deceptively cute, non-man-eating polar bears wearing scarves. So reaching for a cola feels warm and welcoming, like an ursine family outing.

And what, dear social media user, do you want your audience to feel about you? Hint: whatever feeling is conveyed by Friday night out with the girls is the wrong feeling. Your insecurities? Definitely the wrong feeling. Anything but the awesome, super productive, athletic life you’re totally for real living? Ya, probably not what you want to go with.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with self-promotion or even using social media as an advertising tool, we’re left with a gaping credibility abyss, where even word-of-mouth referrals can become suspect. After all, does your Facebook friend really like that product, or are do they think you’ll think more highly of them if you do?

A question worth pondering is what, if anything, is authenticity worth and is it something worth cultivating as, if not a replacement to, but an alternative to self-branding? Does authenticity need its own dedicated platforms and systems to nurture it? Can we acknowledge human weaknesses and vice in public without overly enabling them?

And if you built this system, would anyone want to use it?