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Marketing in a post-truth world needs to adapt

The future of marketing.

For the second time this year, a popular vote has been won by the side that told the most lies (allegedly).

What can marketers learn from politicians shift away from actual facts and moving towards keying into the emotional, subjective and private motivations of individuals.

Both the Leave EU campaign and Donald Trump’s toxic mix of untruths and subterfuge have “won the day”. And it totally wrong-footed traditional pundits, commentators and pollsters. Can we really put this down to the “gullible masses” or is there something deeper, and altogether more significant going on?

Elections and referendums are won or lost on the basis of trust, not facts or lies. Our post-truth world is not just confined to dishonest politicians – it seems we have liars everywhere, bankers, business moguls, celebrities, advertisers and tax-avoiders. Yet there never seems to be any meaningful retribution, in fact, it appears that lying is so commonplace it’s ignored by most.

At the time of the EU referendum, most “leavers” seemed to hang onto statements such as the infamous £350m per week that could be saved, and ploughed back into the NHS. Looking back now, they’d happily agree that maybe they didn’t really believe the statement in its entirety- often they didn’t care and simply used the objective statement as a way to justify or explain what was largely a subjective choice already made.

Telling lies has changed

By telling lies, there is the implication that a “truth” exists and is being hidden, or perverted. This is overly simplistic is today’s data-rich environment, an environment so drenched in (mis)information that we are much less given to trust. Often there is no single truth – it no longer seems black or white – and, as humans, we actively avoid facts that require that require our brains to process them. Does that make us gullible? Or simply lazy? Or more mindful?

Despite the world becoming a more complex place, and with a far wider range of opinions and an even greater number of truths available – we are less likely to believe anything that doesn’t fit our existing thinking and to believe the stuff that does fit. And if the leaders in government, business and the celebrity world all tell huge porkies, then we’ll just make a judgement call on how we feel. Actual facts are losing their relevance and power.

Twenty years ago, the conventional media controlled our thinking, usually through opinion wrapped up as facts. If you read The Times in the 1980s, you’d likely share their political and business views. Today, no-one reads only The Times, so gone is the fact-checking, confirmation bias reporting and semblance of journalistic integrity that the mainstream media peddled.

Folks now consume and are influenced by tiny snippets of information from thousands of disparate sources. It is, indeed, a very different world and seemingly less stable and more in predictable. Look at how wrong the pollsters got the two votes this year!

Thinking with your heart

A loss of trust in business, public and opinion leaders is driving us into the arms of authentic narrative delivered in a pseudo-honest manner. We care less about the accuracy of facts (as they are no longer relevant), and therefore we’re losing faith in the experts that wield them.

We prefer to listen and to absorb information and ideas from people that we can relate to, despite the amateur, cynical, myth-laden or prejudiced viewpoints being shared. The truth no longer matters, it’s the person telling you, and how it makes you feel. Even if it isn’t factual.

With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor and other community platforms, anyone can now be an influencer, across all media types. Individuals with similar beliefs now cluster in groups that reinforce those beliefs and will reject viewpoints outside of their own community as they don’t trust those people.

Facts, and features, are no longer key

So much of traditional marketing is based around the “features give benefits” mantra, and this has migrated into the digital world pretty much untouched. In fact, in the move to digital traditional brands have often watered down their brand and focused on features in the belief that “the truth is out there” on the Internet.

We should regard product features as being equivalent to facts, and the fact-game has moved on. In a world where we don’t trust what businesses and organisations say, how can we trust their features? And how likely are we to spend cognitive power to unravel them? We won’t is the short answer.

We’ve seen this already with the growth in power of peer-reviews and community discussion, yet so few organisations grasp why it’s significant – many regard reviews as another “feature” of their product set. When was the last time you read a review that talked about objectives things? Most reviews are about how we were made to feel, how well (not what) we were communicated with, and how proud we are for making the right choice (or not, in the case of a negative review).

What we will do, however, is read or listen to the opinion of someone like ourselves, fellow consumers and real customers. And, whilst we may ignore the spouting of the marketing department or the CEO, we are usually interested in the views of the rank-and-file staffers. Subconsciously, we’re looking for authenticity.

It’s the difference between saying “We are the best X company in London” and “Our customers say wonderful things about us and have awarded us five stars”. The first is clearly a feature, and the second is an invitation to read what other think about the organisation.

It’s time to rethink marketing campaigns, and worry less about accurate features/facts and focus on building trust through narrative and networks. And, so it seems, telling the odd lie along the way doesn’t really hurt, especially if it fits the mindset and beliefs of your customers.

//Martin Dower

Footnotes: I had planned this article a few weeks ago after reading a piece of research that suggested we trust politician, bankers and business owners less than we trust our postman. However, watching the events unfold in the early hours of this morning in the US elections brought it home.

You could argue that both the Trump’s victory and Brexit were caused by a disaffected voter base, and a shift in the mind of the voter to a more self-serving attitude. However, the reality is that in both cases we voted with our gut and not on untruths and bad facts. Put simply, we didn’t trust conventional fact-based wisdom and opted for a different, altogether more subjective, approach. //M