Home Blogs Why I don’t trust brands… even when they appear authentic.

Why I don’t trust brands… even when they appear authentic.

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sahil_merchant_iconWe recently got slammed.

Last week, I was cc’d on seven emails in the space of a minute. They were all from WordPress, each one a comment from the mag nation blog waiting for approval. On further examination, the author of all seven comments was the same person, and they had posted the exact same comment on seven different blog posts.

Here is what they posted:

What I would like to know “Mag-Nation” is how a NZ company (which all the profits go back overseas) can claim $30k in government grants for a website from Melbourne city council, (funded by the tax payer) to run a glorified newsagency under the label that its an innovative business?

With content in your “about us” section like – “All the girls who work at mag nation are gorgeous. All the boys have big schlongs.” I’m shocked that the Melbourne City Council thinks its (sic) a good idea to fund such blatantly sexist, boorish content.

Not only that, this “Undies Monday” is STOLEN from Gaslight Music who used to have a once a year nude event to raise money for public radio!

So in short – $30,000 of taxpayer funds for a disgusting sexist website, and stolen ideas from other companies.

“Mag-Nation” does not constitute an “innovative” business. More like an innovative way of ripping off other peoples idea’s (sic) and wrapping them up in SMUT to make corporate profits that get sent overseas.

WASTE OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS!!!!

Signed:

Angry City Of Melbourne Taxpayer.

(who doubts this message will even be posted in its entirety)

Needless to say, this is not a very complimentary comment.

I read it to my senior team, and one person thought that we should let this one go through to the keeper. “No point engaging with this person as we will not win them over or change their mind, so just ignore it” was the gist of the conversation.

I let the debate continue for a few minutes, even though I knew 10 seconds after reading this comment on my email that we were going to approve it. Moreover, we were going to create a separate blog entry dedicated to it.

Here is the intro that I wrote to set up the comment:

Someone has just written the same comment on seven of our most recent blog posts. Rather than approving the comment seven times and hijacking the conversation on those posts away from their intended topic, we have decided to dedicate a separate post to this particular comment. It is replicated (in full) below:

And here is how I responded at the end of the post:

A few thoughts in response Mr/Mrs Taxpayer.

1. It was 15K, not 30K

2. We “started” in NZ, but we are an Australian registered company. The NZ company is a subsidiary of our Australian Parent company. All profits (or losses) stay in the Aus entity.

3. We never claimed Undies Monday was original. We in fact openly admit the inspiration came from Gaslight. See this link and the comments.

4. The Australian Retail Association also awarded us “most innovative retailer” in 2007

5. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. We respect yours, and your right to not shop or engage with us. The City of Melbourne obviously had their own opinion as well.

6. We did post this in its entirety.

A Rare Bit of Preaching. Be Authentic

If you take a look at the actual blog post, you will see that this post attracted quite a few comments. (Well, quite a few for a small brand like ours – nothing to compare with the esteemed Anthill of course!) The overwhelming reaction was one of support for us and condemnation for the angry tax payer (who also came back and had a go at those who commented).

Most brands do not react well to criticism, and try to hide negativity under the carpet. The problem is that in today’s digital world, companies no longer own their brand. Consumers do.

Once upon a time, companies could push messages out to be consumed. Now, we simply create a stage, provide some costumes and the audience then writes the lines and acts out the scenes. The world has changed. Information and connectivity have put the power in your hands.

The only rule of thumb in a world where we have become incredibly savvy consumers of information and can see through marketing like never before, is to be open and genuine. I still find it surprising that most consumer brands still haven’t yet woken to the benefits of authenticity, and more subversively, the cost of failure on this front.

Can Authenticity become a tool for manipulation? Oh the Irony!

Maybe I am just way too cynical, but while mag nation has been widely praised for the transparency underpinning our brand, and specifically how we handled this particular negative item of feedback, one could be forgiven for thinking that I was happy to receive this criticism.

After all, when I saw it, I instantly knew that the way we would handle it would please the fans and win us new ones. Therefore, the question is whether I posted this comment because the entrepreneur in me saw an opportunity for my brand waiting to be exploited, or because I believe in transparency for its own sake.

The answer is probably a mixture of the two. I cannot deny that I saw an opportunity here to further emphasise one of our major brand differentiators. Being open has become a major part of our brand DNA, and here was a perfect opportunity to sing to the choir.

Is this authentic, or was I being manipulative? Isn’t it true to say that all corporate communications have the bottom line as their ultimate objective and, therefore, the message that our brand is open and authentic has nothing other than a profit motive underlying it?

Am I so damn mistrustful of brands that I am now even questioning the motives behind my own transparency?

Who can I trust?

There is an ad on TV at the moment for a big box retailer – let’s call them “The Good Blokes” – who must be spending a pretty penny telling us on prime-time television that they are more than just good retailers, but really “good blokes” because they support all these amazing social causes.

While I think it is great that they give to worthy charities, the cynic in me gets offended that they feel the need to advertise this. It is obvious that they are doing it to win kudos, and people need to know about their charitable giving if they are to receive kudos, hence the advertising campaign.

But, strangely, I don’t trust them at all.

Can I consider the mag nation brand to be any different? I think so, but ultimately the consumer will judge. The fine line of distinction, which allows me to feel comfortable with posting the above criticism, firmly resides in my earlier comment that “being open is part of our DNA”.

It is part of my DNA, which is what motivates me to write this blog.

Is Apple creative because it knows creativity sells or because it believes in creativity? What a stupid question! Who cares? Apple makes great products and, yes, they sell because they are creative. But this company has also created a culture and brand where creativity is part of its DNA.

I accept this as authentic, even though there is an obvious profit motive. After all, this is business, and businesses largely exist to make a profit.

The distinguishing factor for me when I find myself questioning the motives behind corporate communications (and I probably spend way too much time doing this, as you might be able to tell from this post) is whether the message is authentic. The only way for me to judge this is to hold authenticity up against the brand as a whole.

The fact that I can’t decipher most brands’ DNA is a completely different issue. Perhaps this is why I don’t trust most brands.

Sahil Merchant is founder of mag nation. Follow him on twitter: @sahilmerchant. His launch post can be found here.

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