Is it more important to be honest or kind? That was the thorny old question tackled by my seven-year-old daughter’s class at their recent school assembly.
I have to say the arguments on both sides were pretty solid.
An honest friend is a true friend.
If your friend is honest, they may tell you something you don’t want to hear. The truth can hurt. Sometimes it’s kinder if your friend is not honest.
You can only really trust someone if they are honest.
If you are hurt and in need, what you need most at that point is a kind friend to come over and help you. In your moment of need, you don’t need an honest friend.
All very pertinent to these ugly post-truth times.
Helpful for marketing too. Brands have always had a rather informal arrangement with the truth. Times were when you went off in search of it. As Robin Wight probably still says: ”Interrogate a product until it confesses its strengths.” The reason to believe, when we still believed in reason.
But there’s also always been a darker side, which generally starts with the idea that ‘perception is everything’. From there it can be a short jump to believing that marketing is about fooling people. Those poor, gullible folk won’t mind if you say things that aren’t exactly true as long as you make them feel the way they want to feel.
The two sides of marketing are well-illustrated by the idea of brand storytelling.
Storytelling has a lot going for it, even if the word itself has become a cliché. At its simplest, it’s about authenticity. Many great brands have great stories behind them waiting to be discovered and told.
Storytelling also provides a structure for thinking. Stories have set elements - heroes, quests, motives, challenges, antagonists, climaxes, resolutions, morals. These can serve well as headings for strategy development.
Beyond that, stories have a narrative. You recognize patterns and archetypes you’ve heard or seen before. And if the story is good, you find yourself rooting for the central character. There’s an emotional truth for you, a connection that develops as the story unfolds.
The downside, of course, is all the best stories are fiction. Real life isn’t like the movies. Many brands don’t have particularly engaging stories, so the temptation can be to twist the truth around a bit. Emotionally true but not actually true. Mark Twain called it “lying towards the truth”.
Where you can come properly unstuck with this is around brand purpose. Personally, I still like the idea of a brand promise. A promises is what a brand says it will do for you. And a promise needs to be kept to have any meaning.
You can argue that promise and purpose are pretty much the same thing. But purpose is an attempt to reach higher. That’s fine as long as it grows out of the product, but not if it’s bolted on. And worst of all is if no one really means it anyway.
So where does the real truth of a brand now lie? There are fewer differentiating product features these days and persuasion won’t work anyway if nobody is listening. Brand engagement relies on having sufficiently engaging content, but increasingly it seems like most people simply don’t want a genuine relationship with a brand.
No, the answer has to be that the truth lies in the experience. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The challenge for brands is to live up to their purpose across all the different touchpoints. But, by the same token, it’s becoming harder and harder to hide behind empty promises.
And fundamentally, you want the truth from brands, don’t you? You want them to keep their promises, so you can put your trust in them for the next time. Nothing is more important for a brand than trust. Hard-earned, easily lost.
So, back to my daughter’s bright, cheery assembly. How do you reckon the school voted?
Of course, us grown-ups know it isn’t black and white. You can be honest in a kind way. You can be cruel to be kind. Lies can be white. What is ‘The Truth’ anyway?
But come on, no time for philosophy, ‘honest’ or ‘kind’? My daughter really, really wanted it to be ‘kind’. She hates the idea of hurting people.
The room went for ‘honest’. Hands down, no contest. The wisdom of children.
Or do you think they were just saying what their parents wanted to hear?