Post Truth: ‘A truth’ vs ‘the truth’ in marketing
by Marguerite de Villiers. Brands have their own truths, and it is up to the consumer to decipher and determine which truth they relate to, agree with, or discard altogether.
You have two children. You share between them a chocolate bar, giving each half. They run outside to enjoy their treat in the summer sun. In the heat, as they play, the chocolate begins to melt and one child accidentally knocks the remaining chocolate in the other’s hand to the ground. There it lies, a melted misshapen mess of sugar and dirt. The latter child instinctively grabs the chocolate out of the former child’s hand, declaring it now belongs to them. The former child begins to cry and calls for you.
Not knowing what had taken place, you walk over to the scene with no idea of what to expect. The self-proclaimed victim who had their chocolate removed from them explains through tears that the supposed thief had unfairly taken their treat. The supposed thief counters this argument by blaming the apparent perpetrator for having initiated the series of events by bumping into them in the first place and making them drop their treat to the ground — claiming that this chocolate therefore belongs to them and that the so-called victim got what they deserved.
You, as the parent, now need to make a decision. Both your children feel strongly about their truth — their opinion, perspective and experience — of the truth — the actual events as they happened. Do you feel confident in either truths? Are you sceptical of either or both? Do you feel apathy or sympathy towards your children? Who do you believe?
It is the same with advertising and marketing. Brands are like these two children; they operate in the same environment, but get different reactions from the consumer (the parent). Brands have their own truths, and it is up to the consumer to decipher and determine which truth they relate to, agree with, or discard altogether.
A few years back in 2013, FNB found itself in an epic quest. As with any hero journey in literature, the hero — FNB — was called to embark on this venture. What inspired FNB was its realisation that the South Africa it had dreamed about and been promised in ‘94 was not the South Africa it believed it was living in at present. FNB took it upon itself to capture and expose socio-political injustices. It filmed unscripted interviews with 1 300 South African youths in which the teens and young adults expressed their political opinion — notably their dislike or even distrust of the ruling party and present government. FNB was entering unchartered territory; it was at the threshold of the known and the unknown. It was the beginning of its transformation from what consumers generally considered to be a relatively conservative bank with ties to the country’s past to conquering its own demons and braving the storm. FNB was on a mission to inspire South Africans to unite and stand together in creating a better country.
From the interviews, according to CMO Bernice Samuels, FNB extracted themes and messages which were then incorporated into a scripted TV advert. This would be a first for both FNB and SA — not only would it blatantly voice FNB’s opinion of the country’s current state, it would do so live and in real time across channels and streamed online. But the ad had been presented as being an unscripted, filmed event at a school in Soweto where a teen voiced her opinion. After it was revealed that it had been staged, the public felt deceived by the bank. In addition to this, it lost popularity among those who didn’t support its version of the truth.
FNB received further criticism for withdrawing the ad and unscripted interviews that had been posted online. In trying to give a platform to unheard voices, its own voice was silenced. Some critics stated that FNB should have followed through with its mission; if you make a political statement, stand your ground. But, alas, the hero had fallen victim to challenges and the temptation of surrendering. FNB attempted to reach the atonement stage of the hero journey by taking out full-page ads in local newspapers that were written in free-verse and in a positive tone: “We help because we believe where there’s help, there’s a way.”
…And where the truth lies
Some market researchers and analysts believe that this campaign was merely an attempt made by FNB to cut through the clutter that consumers are surrounded by. With shorter attention spans and a huge selection of choices, consumers are easily distracted; their attention divided and their loyalty wavering. So how then do brands share their truth without facing dire consequences?
Nando’s is known for its subtly witty social commentary. It draws on the power of suggestion and makes tongue-in-cheek statements. But it is not immune to negative public opinion nor to consequence; it, too, has had ads pulled and has had to make public apologies but it’s been consistent in its perspective and standpoint.
A safer — yet effective — approach was adopted by SA Home Loans. Here, the company put up billboards displaying consumer quotes. Drawing on the ongoing trend of consumer reviews and the impact of eye-witness accounts or first-hand experience, SA Home Loans quoted satisfied customers alongside the statement: “their words, not ours”. This makes SA Home Loans’ truth seem more believable and trustworthy.
Diversity of voices
The key is to allow for a diversity of voices to be heard, rather than simply raging against the machine with no clear intentions. Be transparent and stand your ground. Know what you are fighting for, and follow through. Yet know when to acknowledge your mistakes and take responsibility for your actions. Your truth is not fact; it is merely a truth among many others.