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Truth or consequences

The morning ritual of perusing the media headlines becomes more curious and more confounding with each day. An assault on truth seems to be mounting—gladiators assemble armed with quivers of “facts,” relentlessly promoting their arguments of persuasion. “Fake news” as a blood sport is now infiltrating all facets of our lives, bruising the reputation and effectiveness of institutions, individuals, and beliefs.

This corruption of truth knows no boundaries, has no allegiances, and serves any agenda. We, the public, are trapped in a vice of disinformation and distraction. We are becoming hardened cynics, losing interest and losing faith in the institutions that govern order and healthy debate.

This is a moment in which leaders must lead and truth must prevail.

Brands have both an opportunity and a responsibility to fill the void of trust that grows more expansive and more menacing.  This is not a forecast of doom, but a reaffirmation that brands have a greater role in our culture and society, beyond creating economic prosperity and shareholder value.

As individuals, we connect to brands because they are among the few forces of influence in our lives we feel we can control—and, increasingly, hold accountable. We choose the brands we want to bring into our lives endorse and recommend them as extensions of our own worldviews in exchange for our loyalty and affection. We connect physically to the immersive experiences they create, and emotionally to the messages they convey. This bond is sacred. The relationship we have with brands, built on a truth that connects to our core values, is designed to engender trust.

The salvation of trust is no small task. Brand leaders, as a matter of accountability, must look deeply and earnestly at their understanding and stewardship of truth. CEOs aren’t the sole authors of purpose, but they are the owners—the embodiments of the brand’s purpose and the agents of truth within the organization. The CEO fails, personally, to live up to the values inherent in a brand, the bond is broken, trust breached, and the impact on the business can be catastrophic.

Truth is purpose, purpose is truth

So how does the CEO and his or her leadership begin the refortification of truth? It begins with the brand’s stated purpose. Purpose is the instatement of a universal human truth that connects to your brand truth.

Brand purpose explains WHY an organization exists, beyond making a profit. It draws an emotional connection between an organization and its beliefs, which ultimately drives purchase, fosters loyalty, and propels growth.

Articulating purpose is more than following a growing trend among the world’s best brands, or the breakthrough brands that are growing up with truth at their very core. It’s more than responding to the resounding sentiments of millennials who, represent the largest demographic bubble to join the workforce since the baby boomers, who seek meaning in their work and lives with resolve. It goes far beyond a CSR campaign to publicly promote your commitment.

The preservation of a powerful idea takes vigilant expression and a deep understanding of people. The purpose should be the north star of an organization, serving as the CEO’s ambition and as the guiding light to direct the behaviors and achievements of the enterprise.  Any lapse in commitment yields a predictable erosion of the truth and a corresponding assault on trust—which can quickly throw the brand into crisis mode.

The CEO, as the steward of the brand, must recognize his or her role in fostering truth and disseminating purpose from the inside out. This takes careful attention to a number of key tenets:

  1. Authenticity lies at the core

What you believe and what you do as a brand are the tenets of authenticity. Any deviation from the truth smacks of hypocrisy, which is the soft under belly of all brands. The landscape is littered with those that have embraced hypocrisy over truth—instances in which greed trumps safety, profit trumps quality, prejudice trumps access, jingoism trumps inclusion…and the list goes on. Measures to implement checks and balances of truth are both urgent and warranted. And integrity starts at the top. The CEO must be the unassailable champion of authenticity.

  1. The meaning is in the message

The present assault on truth means brands need to be extra vigilant about how they communicate in a trustworthy manner. Savvy audiences can spot hackneyed or inconsistent messaging a mile away. CEOs have the responsibility of communicating their brand truth in a clear and consistent voice, harnessing the power of language to convey the facts in a manner that builds understanding and trust. Leadership must allocate incremental efforts and resources to effectively face the increasing headwinds cynics have erected around brands.

  1. Purpose must be lived

The flaw of many brands is an inability to translate ideas into actions. Investment in brand training regrettably succumbs to other priorities, at the peril of the brand’s purpose. We observe that relevant demonstrations of how the values link to behaviors is accidental more often than not. Intentionality needs to be introduced at all levels of organizations—from the CEO to the newest recruit. Your workforce is the first defense of truth, and employee advocacy is a powerful weapon to validate the brand’s commitment, defend the brand purpose, and build trust.

  1. Truth involves evolution

The truth resonates when it strikes the chord of relevance. Leaders must continually listen to the voice of the employee and the voice of the customer to understand shifts in sentiment and needs. They then must be willing and able to flex with the forces of change that surround them, without breaching their core values. No brand exists in a static environment, and no leader can assume the saliency of the status quo. The CEO cannot and must not ignore the voices of change and dissent—to ignore these challenges is to ignore the voices of truth.

 

  1. Advocacy propels purpose

The CEO must invite and engage the public in the preservation and promotion of truth. The strongest characteristic of great brands is their ability to inspire choice—and action. Endorsement from outside of the organization can galvanize the brand’s purpose and grow the organizations ability to enact it. And addressing the challenges that inevitably arise in a public forum can prove the brand’s commitment. Leaders must not be shielded from the public in the comfort of their own corporate cocoons. By inviting and interacting with both advocates and critics, CEOs can exemplify the brand’s integrity while increasing the visibility and transparency of their truth.

In the final analysis, we have the luxury of choice in this free society we enjoy. Those choices have consequences. As we debate the existence of truth in the institutions, individuals and brands that influence our perceptions and behavior, it’s incumbent on leadership to responsibly examine their role in the preservation of truth.

The interrogation of truth requires an emphatic commitment to accountability. Leaders must shed all fragments of hypocrisy that compromise the authenticity of your brand. Failure to protect and preserve the purpose of your brand is to willfully resign to the inevitable consequences of neglect.

Brands are the backbone of our culture and economy. We cannot compromise their value to influence societal behavior nor the importance they represent in shaping a better world in service of all.

Contributors

President, New York/San Francisco