French writer, politician and diplomat, Chateaubriand, explained in his “Memoirs from Beyond the Grave” (1849–1850) that truth was an inalienable virtue: “What we gain by lying in reputation and skill, we lose in consideration.” Today, this seems far behind us. These last years, “Post-truth” infiltrated everywhere, and in 2016 the Oxford Dictionary even awarded it its 2016 prize for the most representative term of the year.
The concept refers to “circumstances in which objective facts have less influence in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal opinions”. Admittedly, the use of lies is not new in a democracy, but the real breaking point is precisely the overcoming of the falsification of truth to achieve a simple obsolescence of reality.
Truth no longer matters because the new objective is not to convince the receiver of the message rationally, but to flatter his instincts and strengthen his perceptions. And what better tool than emotion to win support? This is at least what the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in their respective countries have shown, following slanderous and defamatory campaigns. Politics therefore operates beyond the truth, and recent events appear as symptoms of what politics is likely to become in the years to come.
A weapon of conquest
Building on this success in the political world, companies may be tempted to follow this slippery slope, jumping at the opportunity to say that their success could also be achieved by bending the Truth. Some of the disruptive start-ups of the last two decades have made post-truth a weapon of conquest. With nothing to lose, these new “pirate” actors are stirring up often untenable promises. Often, they espouse prophesies of the end of one product or industry, the replacement of while benefits their company. In the health sector, recent announcements about the eradication of various diseases and even death in the 21st century are fascinating to many. We’re now even seeing established leaders play this dangerous game, entering the post-truth.
Companies are now caught in a quagmire. On the one hand, their traditional rational discourse is outdated by the new representatives of modernity, and on the other hand, they risk undermining the trust they have succeeded in establishing with their customers and suppliers by venturing into the field of post-truth.
However, several recent scandals have shown that corporate lies now seem to have more serious consequences than political ones. Post-truth and business do not mix well in a transparent world where century-old reputations can be undone in minutes. But why do we forgive politicians and not brands?
More risks than long-term benefits
A recent Market Probe International Report highlighted that more than half of individuals believe that companies have a more important role than governments in building a better future. Power and trust are on the side of companies today, whose resources and influence are seen as key to building the world of tomorrow.
While playing the post-truth game for a company involves more risks than long-term benefits, it would be wrong not to analyze what this paradigm shift reveals to us. Donald Trump’s ability is to have been able to capitalize on a rejection of cold, arrogant figures and facts, which were assaulted by people who wanted to be understood, defended and reassured in their sense of belonging.
The same phenomenon is at work in the business-to-consumer relationship. Evidence-based decision-making applied to marketing has led to the development of disembodied sales arguments. Who still believes an advertisement that says that “87% of women have recovered after consuming” a product? This imposed clinical truth has contributed to eroding trust between a brand and its audience, just as it has undermined trust between politicians and citizens.
Companies can react. It’s a question of overcoming the opposition between lies and rational evidence in order to embark on a new path around what could be called “vision”. The challenge is to mobilize consumers in support of the company and its brand by focusing not on what the company does or how it does it, but by explaining why it does it.
Lego, for example, has clearly formalized its mission: “To inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”. When you buy a Lego product, you are not only buying an entertaining game for your child, you are developing the creativity and imagination of a future active citizen. Being a Lego customer means adhering to the vision according to which parents can bring out a new generation of creative and imaginative builders. What could be more effective and aspirational?
Batoul Hassoun is Managing Director, Ogilvy Consulting Paris
Dylan Buffinton is Senior Consultant, Ogilvy Consulting Paris