Is honesty a brand’s best policy?

From Tim Hortons to "The Worst Hotel in the World," brands are responding to the times and fessing up to flaws.

Tim Hortons

This article appears in the May 2017 issue of strategy.

In this post-Trump, alternative facts era – when even the most basic truths are thrown into question – it’s no surprise that a new trend of brands being (sometimes brutally) honest has emerged. Transparency, it seems, works, and a few companies are laying their flaws bare.

With a new campaign from Ogilvy & Mather launched in March, Tim Hortons owned up to not having a rich enough Dark Roast. Despite much hoopla over flavour during the 2014 launch of its first new blend in 50 years, the brew simply didn’t take off the way it hoped. Ironically, many found the coffee wasn’t dark enough.

So, in TV and online spots, as well as OOH billboards, Tim’s proclaimed that they heard Canadians (after listening to social commentary), and promised to do better. The creative then invited consumers to try the darker coffee and tweet their new reviews (good or bad).

Clearisil2Clearasil is another brand that’s laying it all out for consumers, recently admitting that it’s run by a bunch of 30- and 40-somethings who are out of touch with what kids are going through these days. Released last May, TV spots by Droga5 in the U.S. speak directly to the demo, saying “We could try and guess what you like,” but in the end the skin-care brand just wants to tell people that its product works fast.

Like most trends in the past decade, the internet can partly be thanked for the newfound vulnerability.

In the din of digital, trust has become a currency, says Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. Historically, consumers (rightly or wrongly) assumed TV and print ads were trustworthy, he says. But, with the diminishing relevance of traditional media, the migration of ads onto brand-owned platforms (where consumers tend to assume brands say anything with impunity), as well as the influx of programmatic companies serving up advertising content on unfiltered websites, consumers’ trust in the online message has eroded, he says.

Being vulnerable is a way for brands to rebuild that trust: You can believe us, we’re being upfront about our flaws. It’s part of a larger trend on the part of marketers to humanize their brands, says anthropologist Johanna Faigelman, CEO and founder of consultancy Human Branding.

There’s a more general societal shift around being upfront about flaws: you see it in online dating profiles, she says, with humour and self-deprecation replacing perfectly constructed profiles in the hopes of getting people to swipe right.

“Brands – like humans – have flaws and it’s OK to embrace that,” she says. “It seems less self-serving to say you recognize something is wrong than to gloss over it. The more honest, the more brands dial up that feeling of trust.”
Hans Brinker

The key, Faigelman says, is to make sure it remains truthful to the target audience. She points to Amsterdam-based hotel Hans Brinker, which created a cult-like following through its long-term positioning as “The Worst Hotel In The World.”

The brand literally airs its dirty laundry – as well as its less-than-appealing bathrooms, ragged rugs and mite-infested beds – in its marketing. It is the definition of a no-frills hotel. But for the millennial target audience looking to party the night away, the campaign by Amsterdam-based KesselsKramer has made it a hip destination and eliminated complaints.

“That level of brutal honesty would never have worked if the target was boomers,” she says.

It’s a common technique called inoculation: highlighting a negative and putting your own positive spin on it, says Middleton. Think “Buckleys: It tastes awful and it works” or Avis’s “We’re number two. We try harder.”

And interestingly, Middleton says, that technique is particularly effective here in Canada, where we’re willing to forgive flaws if there’s a redeeming quality brands can hang their hats on. In the U.S., that type of approach tends to be less effective, he says.

Just look at Kraft Heinz’s Classico campaign. Creative from Taxi, launched last September, acknowledged that its pasta sauce would never be in the top spot. That honour belonged to consumers’ homemade versions. But on rushed nights, Classico claims to be the next best thing. TV spots feature Italian grandmothers swaggering around, celebrating their pasta sauce winning top spot at a tasting contest.

Classico3The goal was to have Classico own its second-place status and bring some levity into an otherwise serious category, says Jenna Zylber, marketing director on meals at Kraft Heinz. And while it was difficult for the brand to say it wasn’t the best pasta sauce on the market, she says the team decided to take the risk anyway.

It paid off. The brand saw the largest dollar-share growth during the campaign period versus any other quarter in its history. Anecdotally, Classico also saw online conversations shift. Before the campaign, the brand (which has an active fan base on Facebook) often found people commenting that it should have used homemade pasta sauce in the recipes it shared, she says. But following the campaign, consumers began to advocate on behalf of the brand, Zylber says, which was an unexpected surprise.

Philippe Garneau, president of GWP Branding, cautions that this vulnerability is a fine line to walk. It’s difficult for brands to legitimately cop to their flaws – if it fails, it can fail spectacularly.
First, campaigns that “own up” to being second best or spin their flaws into positives risk coming across as #humblebraggers.

Second, there’s the very real risk that when a brand admits to a flaw in its product or offering, consumers will feel legitimized in their anger that they were made to feel like chumps, he says – they always knew something was wrong, and now the brand has confirmed it. Third, it’s one thing to acknowledge brand flaws, but if companies don’t do anything to fix them, consumers lose faith in that messaging over time.

Considering the current climate, though, Faigelman and Middleton expect to see more vulnerability from brands.

“But as with any trend in advertising, if it’s overdone, consumers will think it’s B.S.,” says Faigelman. “It’s the people who are doing it really innovatively today who are going to get the most benefit from it.”