One summer day many years ago, a friend of our family told my then eight-year old self that he would build me a treehouse in the fall. Maybe this friend didn’t realize how much I trusted his words. Maybe this friend didn’t really think I was paying attention to what he said or figured that, being a kid, it didn’t really matter what he told me. But, September came, and the treehouse was never built, nor was it built the year after that or, for that matter, ever. No mention was made on why it wasn’t going to be built. The whole matter was ignored. He lied, I cynically concluded back then, maybe everyone does. In retrospect, I know that this is a common pattern and people don’t always INTEND to misrepresent. Sometimes, people are just sloppy with their words; the urge to embellish and brag is core to being human, right? But, is it OK if someone relies, spends money and acts on your statements? Is it OK to be fast and loose with your assertions when you run a business?
What does a Business with Integrity Really Mean?
Webster’s online dictionary defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” Applied to the commercial world, a business with integrity respects the customer and doesn’t misrepresent what its product or service can offer. Treat a business relationship as you would any other relationship. If you wouldn’t want to be fleeced as a customer, don’t hustle your own clients.
The Public is on High Alert
The world is full of ordinary people, politicians, professionals and businesses who for various reasons lie and exaggerate their way to their own version of the facts. This seems particularly true now. Given the number of social media platforms and venues for communication, the temptation to veer further and further from the truth is huge. Are those people targeted by the ads aware of the charade? Will the public catch on to the gimmick designed to get your attention? Yes, some think the public is lately hyper-aware of the potential for tall tales. When a company gets caught, the stakes are high. Volkswagen’s fictitious claim to “clean diesel vehicles” when the company was in fact fudging emission tests continues to haunt the brand as lawsuits and violations of the Clean Air Act rack up penalties and payouts. The cereal company Kellogg claimed Mini-Wheats could boost children’s levels of concentration by 20%, a baseless and fabricated claim. The herbal supplement, Airborne, could allegedly prevent infection from flu and common cold viruses. The company was ultimately forced to pay millions for this false claim. Check out other examples of false advertising here. Anyway, the list goes on and on.
The Case for Authenticity
However, people are also quick to reward the company that is truthful in its message and mission. The July 2017 of FAST COMPANY in the article, Starbucks Is Bringing Hope–And Profit–To The Communities America’s Forgotten, describes Starbucks’ initiative to set up shop in poorer communities like Ferguson, Missouri, hire thousands of veterans (10,000) and refugees (10,000) and make genuine efforts to diversify employee ranks while supporting at-risk populations. Look at Starbuck’s recent TV commercial, “A Year of Good’, to catch the company’s claim that your local Starbucks can act as a focal point for rebuilding community and getting underemployed people back on their feet. FAST COMPANY writes that the public’s perception of this campaign is that it is genuine and authentic. The company does not claim its coffee contains unsubstantiated healing properties, only that Starbucks coffee can bring people together and support struggling communities. This is a statement that rings true and the company has the facts to back it up.
Some creativity and yes, exaggeration in marketing is expected. When people buy a product, they are buying the imagery that goes with it. Who doesn’t want to identify with the heroic athletes featured in Nike ads? Marketing’s goal is to find the best angle on a product or service to draw in a customer and make the sale. The challenge is to make the statement or campaign genuine and real. Even when you don’t think anyone is paying close attention, someone inevitably is. Take the responsibility seriously.