We don’t live in a “post-truth” world.
And yet, there is plenty of evidence that we do. Claims of “fake news” dog reporters daily. Bad-faith actors find ways to dominate conversations online. Armies of bots can be mobilized to repeat those bad-faith arguments ad nauseum.
In such an environment, it’s easier for charlatans to frame truth as some kind of moving target. This of course has profound implications for cultures and governments, but it also creates very real challenges for businesses seeking to build audiences and grow user bases. You can’t do any of those things without a foundation of trust, and you can’t earn trust without demonstrating truthfulness.
For businesses, this means setting the agenda for conversations. You cannot play by the rules of people who cry “fake news.” Instead, you must share your truths and tell your stories on your own terms.
Here is how to tell brand stories that cut through the moral panics of “post-truth” and “fake news.”
Talk About the Things People Really, Truly Care About
In both B2C and B2B verticals, buyers look for resonance in the brands they do business with. They want to know the brands and the people behind those brands care about the same things they do.
This is an easy guideline to follow if you’re selling, say, TOMS shoes. It’s a lot harder if you’re building a brand for a company that makes workflow-automation software.
For that latter brand, though, there is definitely a resonant message. If your product is facilitating someone’s work, you’re ostensibly saving that person time and energy, which the user can then spend elsewhere.
Tell brand stories around that. Tell stories of users who took advantage of workflow efficiencies to learn new skills that got them promoted. Tell stories of users who created flexible work arrangements so they could spend more time at home with their kids. Most people, regardless of what ideologies they subscribe to, can get behind a brand that promotes self-improvement and healthy work-life balances.
Don Scales, CEO at Investis Digital, says this kind of introspection is necessary for brands that want to communicate their worth to customers. After all, he notes, customers are protective of their own time, and won’t give their attention to brands that can’t offer a compelling story. Speaking to the eternal concerns we all share is a good way to capture that attention.
Understand That Your Truth Is Contingent
One of the great acts of humility any of us can perform is to recognize that we’re not perfect stewards of objectivity, but unreliable narrators.
What rings perfectly true for you or your brand might not resonate with someone else. And what is unclear to you might be perfectly visible to someone else.
This is something many journalists and public commentators misunderstand, argues Nathan Jurgenson, editor-in-chief of Real Life magazine. They mistake their own cloudy interpretations of events as an objective reality shrouded in fog. Readers who are more familiar with a story’s nuance can view such reporting as dishonest or biased.
Jurgenson offers a helpful lens through which to view the world, one that emphasizes “smaller, more local truths.” Rather than imagining neutral and objective truths, postmodern scholarship demonstrates “how accepted notions of truth are deeply rooted in cultural contingencies, and that interrogating these notions helps better articulate reality than accepting false objectivism with blind faith,” he writes.
In other words, none of us has full access to The Truth. If the story you’re telling is met with resistance, examine the story’s premises and not your audience’s understanding. Your narrative might be running into territory they’re more familiar with. Honoring someone else’s understanding — their smaller, more local truths — will earn you their trust.
If You Don’t Have to Respond to Someone, Don’t
Finally, let’s return to the bad-faith commentators and the concern trolls and their bots.
The two tips above — speaking to humanity’s eternal concerns and being humble about your perspective — are all about transcending the agendas that these actors put forth. This last tip is about countering such an agenda when it’s aimed at you.
Any number of people might try to set such an agenda for you. Maybe it’s a mayor in Oregon who’s calling for an apology for some perceived slight. Maybe it’s a Twitter brigade demanding a comment. Maybe it’s a political group rounding up business leaders to sign some public pledge.
Whatever the actors and their agenda, always ask whether their demands merit a response. Legitimate, good-faith criticism might call for a response. Bad-faith criticism, trolling and accusations of “fake news” don’t. Those are attempts to shift the terms of engagement to someone else’s favor, and they probably should be met with silence.
As contemporary as “fake news” and “post-truth” sound, brands have been deflecting concern trolls and bad-faith questions for generations. And the strategy for shrugging off those agendas has always been the same: No response.
That’s what Oreo does when someone accuses the cookie’s design of being Freemanson or Knights Templar symbolism. That’s what the band KISS did in the ‘70s when someone would ask whether they practiced devil worship.
In the end, both brands won those narrative battles. KISS sold millions of records by promoting an ethos of pyrotechnics and fun. Oreo maintains its position as one of the most recognizable cookies on the planet. And there’s not much truth to quibble over. You either love fireworks and facepaint and partying or you don’t. You either love cookies-and-cream sandwiches or you don’t.
If your brand’s story can speak humbly to something fundamental, something that transcends contemporary wedge issues, it can weather any current and future moral panics about whether truth is dead.