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Truth Is the New Lie

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In an episode from the second season of the Canadian television hit show Slings & Arrows, Sanjay Ramey (the chief of fictional advertising agency Frog Hammer) tells a prospective client, Richard, the following:

People are tired of ads in all their forms. They don't believe anything we say, and it doesn't work. We at Frog Hammer ask ourselves very simple things: Is it wondrous? Does it move you? Is it culturally authentic? We believe that people are sick of being lied to. If you use truth, you can sell people anything. If you want them to react, to feel or buy, tell them the truth! The truth is the new lie!

What makes Sanjay's sales pitch so ironic is that it's the truth.

Richard is the business manager of the financially troubled New Burbage Theater Festival, and he has a real business problem: His customers are old and dying and he needs to reach out to a younger audience before his business goes bust. Inspiring and enigmatic, Sanjay convinces Richard to turn his back on convention and mount a brutally honest rebranding effort.

Listening to Sanjay, Richard comes to the realization that consumers no longer buy hype and are bored stiff by features and benefits. Honesty, authenticity, relevance, and emotional appeal are the ways to attract the modern consumer.


He allows his new agency, Frog Hammer, to replace the expected highbrow Shakespearian sales pitch with a multi-media advertising campaign that tells it like it really is: "Macbeth was an ass." The result? A youthquake: The season quickly sells out to young audiences and Canada's power- and influence-wielding Minister of Culture, who reluctantly financed Frog Hammer's rebranding of the theater, had to sneak in because she couldn't get a ticket.

When did "telling the truth" become the right thing to do?

A few years ago, Seth Godin wrote a book titled All Marketers Are Liars. His point? Marketers are storytellers, and over the years their stories have become unbelievable, very predictable, and no longer relevant.

How many times have you heard the vapid pitches "we care about you," "personal service," "ours is better," "lowest prices," or "100% guaranteed?" How many times have marketers claimed that their brand is "sportier," "sexier," "pure," "natural," "great tasting," or "good for you?"

In the old days, marketers could use hype and exaggeration to get noticed and people would simply accept it. Not anymore. Today, if you want consumers to pay attention, you had better be truthful. And if you want them to fondly remember your brand, you'd better be emotional.

Brands That "Get It"

Just about everyone has seen the Las Vegas tourism campaign, in one form or another. It's very easy for anyone who's spent a few days in Sin City to recognize how smartly truthful this concept is and nod with a wry, knowing smile after seeing it.

It's remarkable that even an 11-year-old who has never been to Las Vegas can also "get it." At a birthday party not long ago, a few boys (my son included) made some harmless, but extreme mischief. The parent in charge offered them a deal: If they cleaned up the house, she wouldn't tell their parents. Their response? "You mean like what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas?"

About a month ago, Starbucks ran a full page brand ad in the New York Times showing two interlocking coffee rings, with the word "hi" written in the place where the rings intersected. The headline read "Reconnect."

Looking at this ad made me nod my head and think about how the perfect cup of coffee would include spending time with someone I care about, having a relaxing conversation, and catching up. It's much more than about a great-tasting product in a great atmosphere. The ad spoke to a higher-order need and made me want to go sit in a coffee shop and spend time with a friend, maybe even at Starbucks. There was truth in the heart of this message, and that's why it was so effective.

E-Harmony doesn't get you a date. They race past all manner of foreplay and get right to the heart of what many people using online dating services are really looking for: a soul mate.

Which truth is the right truth for your brand?

How do you figure out what parts of the truth are relevant and worth sharing with your audience, and what parts of it are boring and not worth mentioning? How do you use truth to emotionally engage your customers and prospects? How do you keep the relationship fresh so they don't leave you for a smarter, sexier, more honest brand?

Here are four steps that are integral to uncovering brand truths and determining which contribute to a believable, differentiating, relevant, memorable, and deliverable brand story:

  1. Peel back the onion.
  2. Analyze the competitive idea space.
  3. Identify the true relationship drivers.
  4. Get intimate with the consumer.

Peel back the onion

Take a good hard look at your brand, from an outsider's perspective. Where did it come from? What does it offer of value? How has it been presented in the past? What is its current positioning and current market position? How about the people behind it? What are they thinking and saying? How do they act? What do they really believe? What do they think of the consumer? Tell the truth and nothing but the truth.

Analyze the competitive idea space

Take a look at all of your competitors. Reverse-engineer their brand communications to see where they are focusing, how they are positioning their brands. What are they saying? How is it different and how is it the same? Is it the truth? After you've completed this, you should have a good idea where there is saturation and where there is opportunity in the world of ideas.

Identify the true relationship drivers

Identify all of the attributes in the category and do a gap analysis to determine which of these are the relationship drivers for the category—and for your brand. Are the drivers tangible or intangible? Which attributes do you need to do well just to be considered? Which offer the highest return on investment and which aren't worth spending time or money on?

Get intimate with the consumer

Among consumers, what are their current perceptions of the category as a whole, your brand, and those you compete with? What keeps them up at night? What interests them, makes them happy, and can improve their quality of life. Focusing on the relationship-building drivers, ladder up the list of attributes to get to the place that resonates with consumers emotionally. What they are willing to believe about your brand that is somehow different and more desirable than the competition?

* * *

The bottom line: It may not be so plainly evident, or as easy as telling a lie, but uncovering the truth is the key to finding a position that will move your brand upmarket.


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Mark Shipley (markshipley@smithandjones.com) is Chief Thinker and cofounder of Smith & Jones (www.smithandjones.com).

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  • by tasha Tue Mar 31, 2009 via web

    Great article! Well-written and well-said! I completely agree!

  • by AverageJoeSF Fri Jun 6, 2014 via web

    You forgot to add that Sanjay at FrogHammer was later revealed to be a complete fraud, who was posing as a marketing expert for fun but had no experience or knowledge whatsoever. He simply made up his marketing philosophy as he went along. Telling the truth has always been the right thing to do, even in marketing and advertising. The greater lesson to be gained from this episode of Slings and Arrows is that an outside impostor with no training or experience was able to easily out-bullshit the professional bullshitters. A quote from the late actor George Burns comes to mind - "The most important thing about acting is honesty - and if you can fake that, you've got it made."

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