What’s the Role of Honesty in Today’s Content Marketing Landscape?

By Liz Alton on August 30, 2017

Is content marketing always honest marketing? There's often a lot of discussion in the marketing world about authenticity, voice, and storytelling. But what about the importance of just telling your customers the truth? Recently, I was working with an entrepreneur designing eco-friendly water bottles and other adventure gear. The materials they're using are cutting edge, sustainable, fully recycled . . . and expensive. Ultimately, when the products go to market, it's going to be at a higher price point than that of their competitors.

While the founder had some concerns about coming into the market as a high-end product, the CMO was completely clear: "It comes down to honesty. Our commitment to the environment—and supporting people who feel the same way—is our highest value. That means some trade-offs in cost. We're okay with being more expensive and we can be honest in telling our story about why that is, which in turn should help us attract our ideal customers."

How can your brand embrace honesty as a core value and play that out in your content marketing strategy?

honest marketing

Image attribution: Dawid Zawila

Why Honesty Has Become a Central Value in Marketing

According to a recent study from Sprout Social, 81 percent of consumers feel that social media has increased accountability for brands. The same study took a deeper dive into why that is. Of those who responded, 80 percent feel that it helps uncover unfair treatment, 70 percent believe it encourages transparency, 75 percent sense that it empowers consumers, and 65 percent perceive that social media amplifies issues.

In other words, consumers have tools today to make it very easy to share when they're unhappy or discover that a company is using questionable practices. They can quickly take that information public to start a dialogue with the brand and increase the visibility for other consumers, investors, and the media. It's a tough time for shady businesses (which is ultimately good for everyone).

Customers today are prioritizing honesty in their brand interactions. The Harvard Business Review recently reported on the Customer Quotient Study, which looks at why consumers are drawn to certain brands. As the authors write, "It describes and measures five attributes that consumers value in a brand: openness, relevance, empathy, experience, and emotion. A brand's performance on these measures predicts loyalty outcomes and is clearly correlated to profit (ROA) and growth (revenue). In short, CQ offers a measure of how people feel about companies and the experiences they provide." Many of these factors—openness, transparency, empathy, and emotion—are some of the core elements of honesty and affect how companies think about their marketing.

how brands are using honesty to win friends and influence the market

Image attribution: Alex Vans-Colina

How Brands Are Using Honesty to Win Fans and Influence The Market

As a marketer and a writer, I find that I'm drawn to the idea of honest marketing. I like the idea that my work is helping to tell the truth to consumers in an age where brand trust is low, and that storytelling can help elevate the level of honest engagement businesses have with the people they serve. What does that look like in reality—and how can we put this into practice for our own businesses?

Pay attention to what matters, adjust your business practices, and then tell that story

In many ways, honest marketing is about using content marketing to elevate honest business practices. As the Harvard Business Review article above noted, people want to do business with brands that understand them and care about what they need. So when the 2016 Food Revolution Study found that food product transparency mattered to 94 percent of consumers, brands like Panera took notice. As AdWeek reports, "Fast-casual dining chain Panera Bread took this principle to heart. In May 2015, the company made a promise to stop using artificial ingredients by the end of 2016 and launched a 'Food as It Should Be' marketing campaign and 'transparent' menus that list calories, ingredients and nutritional information for every item." Another example of this is REI closing its stores on Black Friday. The potentially controversial move garnered significant interest and support from customers.

Embrace the "contrast effect"

As a brand, you have to explore what honesty means and how it matters to your customers. One way is to look for inspiration in market research, conversations, and simply asking customers how your company and the industry at large is failing. Another is to look at the recurring complaints that occur. For example, many vacationers have taken a trip and booked a room at a hotel for a set price. Upon arrival, they find out there are additional resort fees that weren't mentioned, and costs for things like Internet, pool towel usage, and beverages weren't included in the "all inclusive." If you can identify where honest practices are breaking down in your industry or why customers are frustrated, your response—and subsequent marketing—can help address those issues in a meaningful way. As Forbes has noted, when brands position themselves in a way that's distinctly different than the norm in the market, they become more distinguishable and benefit from the "contrast effect." How are you contrasting with your competitors?

Help your customers tell their truth

One campaign that stands out for focusing on honesty is the Dove "Real Women" campaign, which focused on showcasing bodies of all shapes and sizes. Harvard Business Review reports that in their study, "Given the enormous success of their 'Real Women' campaigns, it's also clear why Unilever's Dove performed so well. The health and beauty care vertical generally scored high on authenticity—fitting, given that its products have an impact on how people feel, how they care for others, and how they are perceived by others on a daily basis." When a campaign resonates with how customers really perceive themselves or feel, especially in an industry that can have difficult-to-attain standards for the average person, it links to a deeper sense of truth within customers and audiences respond.

Embrace your shortcomings and focus on who shouldn't buy your product

Another part of an honest marketing strategy is being clear about your brand's shortcomings. For example, circling back to our original example, a person whose first goal is to buy the cheapest water bottle they can find isn't the target audience for this company—and they're clear about it. Your content marketing can be a great place to signal who is right for your products and who isn't. Are you selling a premium organic face cream that's expensive because of how the ingredients are sourced? For some people, that price is worth the investment; for others, it doesn't even make their top five concerns. Honest marketing helps you connect with your ideal customer, while gently letting others know you may not be right for them.

In a crowded content marketing space, honest marketing can stand out. This approach should be an outgrowth of your larger business practices, and not the other way around. When you understand who your audience is, what they need, what makes your brand different, and how an honest perspective can redefine your industry, you'll build long-lasting relationships with your ideal customers.

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Aziz Acharki


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.