As information becomes ever more accessible via social media and limitless TV channels, so does disinformation. A range of actors – from autocrats to malicious individuals – with a range of motives are now capable of convincing millions of followers of things that are not true. That includes disinformation about companies and brands, and an Oliver Wyman Forum survey of post-COVID consumers found that 65% think organizations are not doing enough to keep people away from fake news.
Brands actually have a relatively high level of trust, scoring higher globally – 3.4 points out of a possible five – than national governments (2.8), mainstream news (2.8), or social media (2.3). That gives them a role to play in fighting disinformation, as well as a responsibility to maintain their reputations. Consumer brands must not only be honest; they must make sure they are perceived as such – so information needs to be correct and also beyond doubt.
Showing What’s Good – And Bad – About Products
The paramount importance of honesty can be seen in public reactions to defective products. If a company tries to cover up problems, it can give the impression that it does not care sufficiently about public safety. However, if it is seen to be open and honest about its mistakes, its public image can even rise. In a 2010 survey, 91% of consumers accepted that even the best companies will sometimes make mistakes and need to recall products. What’s more, 87% said they would be more likely to purchase a brand that handles a product recall honorably and responsibly.
In normal times –when a company is not dealing with a defective product – companies can increase their openness by providing more information. SmartLabel, a digital platform that links from a code on the package to online content, gives access to more information than will fit on a package. This can include recipes, nutritional content, and allergens, as well as tips on how to use, recycle and handle the product. It might also include company information and the product’s country of origin, third-party certifications, and social compliance and sustainability programs.
Third-party certifications have traditionally been an important way for brands to reassure consumers about a company’s social or environmental responsibility. But greenwashing and social-washing fears abound, sometimes justified. For example, there have been claims that, despite its aims, some fair-trade labeling does not actually reflect higher living standards for the farmers supplying the products, either because it encourages oversupply (which eventually reduces prices) or because only a tiny share of the extra money charged actually reaches farmers. Companies need to be sure that they can back up their claims with solid facts that stand up to scrutiny.
Leadership In The New Era
To challenge consumers’ worldview and take them outside the echo chambers often found online, businesses should go beyond the provision of information and engage people more proactively. Companies need comprehensive communications strategies, and media aggregation services that draw on a variety of inputs and perspectives can supplement efforts to identify and combat misinformation.
In some industries, companies are already investing in content teams to support trust and safety. They will need to develop increasingly sophisticated ways to warn users about disinformation and to directly block poor information via algorithms and human support.
None of this is yet standard, but perhaps now is a good time to start if companies want to avoid seeing the erosion of trust that has impacted so many institutions destroy valuable brands, as well.