Oxford University Press identified ‘post-truth’ as its Word of 2016, in the wake of both Trump and Brexit campaigns, and we’ve all been quietly adjusting to that new reality in politics ever since. But it’s not just a political issue: if, as Sean Pillot de Chenecy contends, ‘Consumer trust is the basis of all brand values’, what does it mean when companies betray that trust? In a world of more transparency than ever before, how can businesses create and maintain trust? Click To Tweet
But the problem with writing about such a topical issue is that as soon as you go to press, there’s another breaking story just screaming to be included.
‘I do remember, literally when it was on the printing press, just begging the printers to allow me to lob in one more quote,’ confesses Sean.
But the solution isn’t to keep holding back. Listen to Sean’s superb advice for anyone writing a book dealing with topical issues.
Sean’s website: http://www.brandpositive.org/
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a joy to be here today with Sean Pillot de Chenecey, who is a marketing expert who for over 20 years has combined brand consultancy with ethnographic activity and trend research around the world. His clients have included world famous brands such as Unilever, Swatch, GlaxoSmithKline, General Motors, there are lots, lots more. He’s collaborated with numerous advertising branding, design, media, and PR agencies. He’s a university lecturer and a public speaker, and he’s author of the Post-Truth Business: How to Rebuild Brand Authenticity in a Distrusting World, which is a great title. Welcome to the show, Sean.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Thank you. How are you?
Alison Jones: Really good. Nice to be talking to you. Do you know what? Let’s start off with the big stuff, because what else would you do? What does trust even mean anymore, and why is it an issue for businesses? We talk about it a lot in politics, but why does it matter for businesses?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: I think, well it’s a huge, huge issue obviously. I firmly believe it’s the number one issue of our time, really. I think we could all hopefully agree that all businesses want to have strong and long lasting relationships with their consumers, and that relationship, and indeed all relationships are built on trust. So, be it between brand and consumer, or politician and voter, or within the companies themselves, as in the relationship between employer and employee, or indeed obviously between us as individuals in our private relationships. These are all based on trust.
Alison Jones: When trust is eroded, that’s obviously problematic. Tell me a little bit about the … I mean it seems to me that the more knowledge you have, the more problematic trust becomes, and we are awash with knowledge now.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: I’m actually … think the opposite. I think the more knowledge we have, the better things are. I think certainly when it comes to a business basis, brands that are keeping things back, or brands, or organisations that are unhappy about people wanting to know more are those in a situation which is highly dicey. We’ve seen this again on the political level, only last week in the US, with situations whereby politicians who do not want the truth to have a bright light shone on it are causing enormous questions socially. It’s the same thing with corporations, and with brands of all sort. Brands and businesses of any type.
When we see those that welcome attention, and welcome consumers digging around, then that sends out a very positive signal. When they don’t, then alarm bells begin to ring. There’s a famous quote in The Economist, which I tend to use a lot when I’m giving my speeches in various parts of the world, when they said, “Consumer trust is the basis of all brand values, and therefore brands have an immense incentive to retain it.” We can look at this again across virtually any sector. Jack Ma of Alibaba fame, one of the most famous business people on the planet, again, famously stated, “Once you have trust, the rest is easy.”
Alison Jones: When you say trust, let’s just unpack that a little bit because trust means all sorts of different things, trust means one thing in a marriage, it means one thing with a politician making promises. For a business, is it trust in the good intention of the company? Is it trust that they can deliver a good service? Is it trust that the product is … Presumably it’s all of these things, but what do we care most about when we talk about trusting a business?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: I think it depends on the business, it depends on the sector, and so that is a moving issue. We can see how issues like … technology obviously has had an enormous impact on trust, there’s a lot of talk about trust becoming more horizontal, if you like, so there’s been a lot of debate about the way that trust has, if you like, has evolved through society since society began. Trust moved from us and our neighbours in the village to those that we formed relationships with, to trust then moving on to institutions when institutions began to be formed in societies and what we’ve now seen through technology, in the most obvious form, is technology enables us to trust people who we’ll never meet.
So if you’re happy with your, whatever, teenage children staying in a stranger’s house, then that is a fantastic thing because that has been … obviously in terms of Airbnb for instance, technology enables us to put trust in someone else and for them to put trust in us. So us to trust them to act in a decent manner and to ensure the safety of our loved ones, or indeed ourselves, and for the other person to trust that they are going to get paid. So it’s a very interesting situation that we’ve seen in terms of technology enabling trust but also the situation of technology … For instance, blockchain, there’s a lot of talk about blockchain effectively giving every physical product a digital passport so that we now know that a product is what it appears to be and that its journey is what the company says it has been.
So we can therefore check on things that may matter to us as individuals, like worker rights, animal welfare, et cetera. ‘Is this fresh?’ Or whatever. So this issue about trust goes, as I say, right to the basis of society and individuals and gets across all areas of business.
Alison Jones: Yes, and it’s very interesting hearing you say that, particularly about the Ubers, the Airbnbs, that rely entirely on the fact that ‘I simply trust this person will act appropriately, because if they don’t, their reputation will suffer,’ and it’s… actually, it’s all about reputation, credibility and visibility. Is-
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Mm-hmm (affirmative), oh totally.
Alison Jones: Go on.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Sorry, I talk a lot about reputation capital. This issue of people saying, “Is the brand or the service or the product, are they trustworthy, reliable and competent?” So again, you mention Uber, this technology gives you the trust justification to get into a car with a stranger late at night, something that-
Alison Jones: It’s a new working capital isn’t it?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alison Jones: Sort of reputation capital.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Absolutely, 100% so and it just really, really surprises me that there haven’t been a mass of books on this subject that deal with it on a business basis. So there are plenty of books that have been looking at all things post-truth from a political perspective and plenty of great titles out there looking at issues about fact, or truth, and trust, but what I’ve tried to do with this book … and it amazes me probably more than anyone else, it appears to be the first one that joins the dots between all things post-truth and fake news and transparency and privacy and ethics et cetera. So, nice for me, but I’m just really surprised that there aren’t a mass of competitors out there.
Alison Jones: Well you’ll probably find, this is what tends to happen, oh there’s a big trend in trust books, here we go we must…
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Exactly, give it half and hour they’ll be all out there, so yes.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting because in a sense, the infrastructure supports that. I’m thinking back to, my grandmother for example, who would have had complete trust in her bank, she knew nothing about what went on behind the scenes but she just trusted it because it was a bank and that’s sort of what I mean about you go through this place where you start to find out more and more, you discover about the supply chain, you discover what a company’s been paying its employees and how it’s been treating them and that’s the knowledge that I think has created that credibility crisis, isn’t it?
But then you come out the other side and when you have the transparency, when you’re able to, as you say track a product through the supply chain, when you have that reputational capital and you can see other people’s reviews for example, then that enables it. But it’s an interesting dynamic, I think we’ve come through a credibility crisis, for want of a better word.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Oh very much so and you could say the credibility crisis – I talk a lot about this in conference halls all over the place, I was talking about it last week in Copenhagen at a massive tech summit and the week before in Prague, week before that in The Hague, I’ll be doing it next week in San Francisco and then New York, you could look at this issue and what I tend to talk about there is, really comes down to behaviour. Brand credibility, business credibility, is all about behaviour. It’s all about evidencing it. So, “My experience of …” whatever, the hotel, or the car hire company, or the dinner in a restaurant or whatever, is what I gain my view of the brand, or service, or product from and that’s what enables me to believe in them and to build on that brand’s credibility.
Alison Jones: Let’s dig into that a bit because I’m really interested in this. Actually what are the specific ways in which businesses can respond to this? If trust is largely horizontal now, if we almost don’t believe what a company says because a company’s saying it and they would say that, wouldn’t they? How do you as a business respond to that to build trust?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Well in the book, I’ve come out obviously with a post-truth brand manifesto. All publishers love manifestos because it helps-
Alison Jones: Yes we do love …
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: There we are. So everyone’s got a manifesto. So in mine I do a fairly straightforward one when I … Again, starting the basics, that issue about authenticity, probably the most over-used word there is in the world of business but it’s amazing how my impression is that most businesses just tick that box and move on swiftly without really thinking about it. To me it’s all about living it like they say it. So as we’ve seen, again, a real collapse in trust in advertising in particular, for instance, so endless, literally endless, non-stop 24/7/360 bits of communication, however you want to interpret the word advertising in a multi-faceted way, means that we’re just so used to an industry or a sector that’s built on exaggeration and over-claim, that so many branded messages are just discounted as soon as they are uttered, or portrayed.
So brands have to live it like they say it. So obsessing over heritage and origins and revelling in their individuality and distinctiveness. Again, so few brands are genuinely different. This issue of differentiation is huge, there’s so many me too brands across sectors on a global basis, it’s very, very hard now to genuinely stand out. So again, it comes back to… behaviour is really, I think, what it’s all about because just saying it isn’t good enough any more because everyone essentially, within reason, says the same thing or a very similar thing, which again comes back to things like brands liking it when so-called informed consumers make intentional buying choices. Some people do this a lot, some people very little, some people are purely price-driven, which is fine but for those who are, and an increasing number of people are what we think of as informed consumers who do make intentional buying choices. That then comes down: to when choice is available, the trusted brand is chosen over the one that isn’t.
To me, one of the most fascinating issues here is that we look at a couple of the most powerful corporations on the planet, with Facebook being very much one of those and if any brand has had its trust levels hammered more globally in the last six months, and even over the last couple of days, than Facebook, then I can’t imagine who they are because Facebook have been absolutely battered by this. It’s very interesting that despite the #DeleteFacebook campaign, very little actually happened there and very little happened because there’s so little choice available.
You can delete Facebook, what are you going to do next? It’s not as though there are 50 alternatives, as there would be in any other sector, phones, or food, or drink, or fashion, or cars, or whatever. So it’s very interesting how that particular sector that is so guilty and is so centre stage in terms of the trust debate is ironically, super-ironically, the one sector whereby there’s so little choice because the real big players have bought up everything around them and are really stifling innovation, that you basically have to stick with them. So the only people that actually can have an impact there are governments. This isn’t a consumer-driven thing really.
Alison Jones: Well that doesn’t seem to be working terribly well, does it?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Exactly, what else? But I mean, I talk about brands need to be transparent, again The Economist says, “For democracy to thrive, leaders need to find a way to regain the confidence in voters and that starts with transparency.” I’d say exactly the same thing with businesses. For brands to thrive, business leaders need to find a way to regain and retain the confidence of consumers and this starts with transparency.
So I think leadership has a very, very key role to play here to ensure that this issue goes right through the business. Privacy is an absolutely massive point which I think has … Really, to me, that’s the one that has really grown over the last 18 months, that people have been aware of, or vaguely aware of, the fact that these big tech brands hold a huge amount of information and huge amount of our data about us, they basically gather that and then sell it, obviously to advertisers, to target us with ads or whatever. Again, through things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and many, many others around the world, I think people are waking up to the fact that the way that our data is being used and how we’re being targeted, and particularly in political terms how we’re being hyper-targeted, is having A, a massive impact on us as individuals and also, a huge impact on us as a society in terms of the way that hyper-targeting is absolutely undermining democracy.
So again, even back in the UK, there’s been endless debates currently at the party conferences that we’ve seen, as there are debates again internationally, about people saying we need to really think about how hyper-targeting is impacting democracy because democracy only works in the open, when we all have open conversations, essentially about the same policies or issues from different political parties, so we can all talk about the same thing and all debate with each other and come to a conclusion that’s relevant to us. Whatever our political leanings are. Democracy happening now in darkness, in a digital age, is really, really destabilising it. So yes, one of those.
Then I also talk about empathy, a huge issue about good neighbour brands being good social citizens and again, wrapping it all up in this whole issue about being generally trustworthy.
Alison Jones: I do hope this is a tipping point. I hope this is the point where brands go, “Do you know what? It’s just easier to do the decent thing because then we don’t have to create a whole story about it. If we just do it and then we won’t be found out.”
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Completely and then we get faced with things like the VW emissions scandal and they aren’t alone by any means. You just think to yourself … it’s just so mind-boggling to-
Alison Jones: I’m sure it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Well completely and you think, well that issue, which has been very, very reported, reported over the last year or so, whereby one of the most visible brands there is took the extraordinary decision to deceive us is, I think to any reasonable minded person, just a ludicrous, insane decision. Obviously it wasn’t one person doing this. That scandal went through, no doubt, meeting after meeting and someone thought it was a good idea. It’s quite unbelievable. So yes, all the things that, no doubt any reasonable person listening to this podcast, who works in any business or who is just talking about it in the … whatever, on the bus, or in the pub, you cannot believe that brands are still mucking about and thinking they can get away with bad behaviour because what we do know is that bad behaviour gets caught out.
Alison Jones: Do you know what? We could talk about the trust thing for the entire podcast but what I want to do also is dig into the writing of the book because that’s one of the really interesting things that we do on this podcast as well. So I particularly wanted to ask you about … We’re at a really interesting point in your book’s life. We’re speaking on the 1st of October 2018 and your book is coming out on the 3rd of October, I think, 2018. So-
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Exactly, drum roll.
Alison Jones: I know … So unfortunately this won’t be going out before then but I just wanted to dig into this moment in time a bit because it’s quite a interesting moment, isn’t it? How have you used that time between finishing the book and its official publication. What’s it been like? Has anything surprised you about this gap, this pause in time?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Bizarrely, not vastly, because it was a very, very intensive writing process. When I was doing it, for instance, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was in full flight. Prior to that, obviously Trump had got into the White House, the whole Brexit thing had gone through, so again-
Alison Jones: I can just imagine you sitting down to watch the news every day going, “What will it be today? What can I put in the book?”
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Literally, I remember it very well. When the scandal broke, I was, whatever, four fifths through the book and I was having to endlessly update things and the actual day I finished it was when I think … well I did make a few amendments after this but when I generally finished it was the day when it was the Trump Putin summit in Helsinki and I was going, “Come on Trump, give me another mad quote.” Obviously he did thing about, essentially pointing out that he believes Putin more than the FBI. At which point my jaw dropped like everyone else’s and it’s like, “Wow.”
Alison Jones: Yes, he ‘didn’t mean to say that’ though. I know it came out that way.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: I have to say, the book isn’t … There’s only a couple of chapters that really deals with politics and it’s not an anti-Trump diatribe although no doubt any of us could have written that. So I’ve tried to be even-minded and take a reasonable point of view because again, things like the hyper-targeting stuff for which they have been so rightly exposed. I gave a speech with David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign chief, several years ago in the Middle East, where he and I were talking afterwards, and part of his speech was talking about how the Obama campaign used hyper-targeting. Again, nothing illegal about that, it was used from, basically copying the world of advertising, how we do things there. So it’s by no means purely a Republican, Trump thing. We can’t hang it all on them. This is something that is used and has been used quite a long time. It’s being used more and more now but it ain’t just Trump. It’d be a lot easier if it was, as I say, a lot of people think when he eventually goes from the White House, things will be okay again, if only that were the case.
This issue about alternative facts and all the rest of it and fake news, and how that is just destabilising, as I say, society and corporations and brands, is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, I think, unfortunately.
Alison Jones: But just coming back that point about this space between finishing the book and publication, what has that been like? What have you been busy doing during that time and has anything surprised you about it?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Well I spend half of my life giving speeches or doing research, so alongside all the running around research side of things, I’ve been giving talks all over the place and have to say, I would say, it’s all going down very well because this point just seems to be so highly visible for everyone no matter where you go. So it doesn’t matter if you’re getting off a plane in Melbourne, or Tokyo, or Madrid, or Los Angeles, everyone’s talking about the same stuff. Which again, it just amazes me why you then go into a bookstore and you … Why we aren’t faced with floor to ceiling books on this, I can’t understand. As I say, there are lots looking politically, some great books without a doubt and I read them all and I reference them all in mine but on a business angle, I just can’t understand why more people aren’t writing about it.
Alison Jones: Maybe they’re busy writing but every time they get ready to send it in, something else happens that they have to put into chapter six.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Well there we are, exactly. I do remember literally when it was on the printing press as it were, just begging the printers to allow me to lob in one more quote and I was driving them insane, having to endlessly apologise to everyone but it was one of those ones when it was just a really moving story.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. There’s quite a long gap isn’t there, between signing off the books and the book actually being available in the shops?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Yes.
Alison Jones: It drives you insane as an author, when it goes out and it’s out of date already, but it’s just inevitable, it’s part of the thing about having a book in fixed form.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Yeah, yeah sure, absolutely. On this one … I mean, I have to say, luckily since I finished it, which is probably … Let me think, yeah sort of mid July I suppose, or late July maybe I was just doing the last couple of tinkering around bits, or possibly even very early August, nothing really massive has happened since then that wasn’t already in the book or forecast in the book. So the one thing I was concerned about was would Mueller’s investigation come back and expose factually, bang, this is it.
So we are expecting more reports out in November, post the midterm elections, as we are in the UK from the point of view of ongoing investigations into the Brexit vote and many others, but there hasn’t been … Apart from last week’s latest in a long list of issues happening, we saw the biggest data breach Facebook’s ever had, impacting as we know, up to 19 million people but apart from that giant hiccup, nothing else has really, shall we say, destabilised the book. It’s all as it is, shall we say, as it should be.
Alison Jones: So we’re looking for a new edition in about December, yes?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Yeah exactly and another one in January, so yes, exactly.
Alison Jones: But it’s an interesting point, isn’t it? Because books are monumental, and I don’t mean in a size way, but I mean they’re milestones aren’t they? They come out, they’re static, there may be a new addition in a wee while but presumably you have an ongoing response to … So how do you fit the book into that? The book is obviously something that you talk about quite a lot, do you blog around that? Do you write articles? What else goes around it?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Well I write articles about it, so I’ve written several this month about it. I’m doing lots more about it and so meanwhile obviously, because it is a moving feast, as you know that every author has the same situation, my office is just stacked full of more and more stuff that I’m going to reference when I do the update. So yes, one has to keep … Again, because it’s this whole area. I look into how it’s impacting advertising, how it’s impacting different parts of the communication mix, how it’s impacting pricing, positioning, strategy, all the rest of it. So it’s not … Out of 10 chapters, two really are politically driven and the rest are all branding in general across various parts of the mix.
Again, I looked at it from a very international point of view. There’s only one chapter that has quite a UK focus, the rest is very much a real mix of Asian, European, US, African stuff. So yes, basically writing articles about where this all fits it, no matter if you’re a Chinese beer brand, or an African fashion brand, or an American car brand, et cetera.
Alison Jones: There’s so much there that’s interesting about scope and where you fix your boundaries for the book because at some point you have to finish the damn thing and actually you could go off in all sorts of directions. Yes, really interesting. If somebody’s listening to the show, particularly I think if somebody’s wrestling with a very, very topical subject, which I think is what’s so interesting about yours, and perhaps that issue of scope, just, “Oh my goodness, there’s so much I could put in here,” what’s your one best tip for them? Just getting the thing done?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Let me think on that one. Well I mean, this issue … If you’re writing something that is topical and therefore is a moving feast, then obviously it is highly problematic because your great horror is always going to be, literally, as you’ve just said, the day after you finally close it and send it off, that then something massive happens and I’m sure every author has had this worry since … effectively since time began.
So I suppose one can purely say hopefully the reader will understand. So one has to say, “Right, writing this now, this is all I can see from here and having spoken with relevant numbers of experts and those in the know, this is all that they can see from here.” If something vast changes in half an hour’s time when it’s all gone to bed, you just have to scream inwardly and put up with it and I’m sure there’ll be many, many authors who’ve had that exact concern.
Alison Jones: Because the alternative is to keep holding it back just in case and that doesn’t serve you either.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: No it doesn’t. So we just have to … Again, obviously with all publishers having strict schedules, then the great worry’s … I suppose the big thing there would be get on with it as soon as you can so you’re not getting backed up, if you like. The way I did it was literally just to write a chapter a month for 10 months and did it all actually in the first eight months, so that I could then do swift rewrites if needed at the last minute, as opposed to putting it off with an impending sense of horror and then trying to write it all in a last minute burst. So it was quite structured and quite strict with myself in terms of having to hit various markers during the writing process.
Alison Jones: I can just imagine people throwing things at whatever device they’re listening to this on and going, “Well that’s all very well for you, you’re obviously really organised and disciplined.” Are you just a naturally really organised, disciplined person or did you force yourself by means of tricks?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: No. As I say, I mean, yes I am quite disciplined because I worked as a consultant. My wife and I set up together nearly 20 years ago when I left advertising, she left the BBC, so as anyone else who works for themself will be totally aware, you have to be self-disciplined and you have to self-motivate. As no doubt, one does in any role, but yes, so in terms of the writing process, it was just saying right, got to do it every month, got to do various bits, get them in the diary and just get on with it.
Alison Jones: Yes, that in itself is a useful thing because this is work, it’s not a side project, it’s work and it helps when you have an editor who’s hassling you as well, doesn’t it?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Oh very much so. I did this with Kogan Page who, I have to say, were great and yes a lot of advice and nudging being given in the right direction and one of those. I’d also say definitely make sure you’ve got all of your references nailed to the ground as you go through it, don’t leave them to the last minute because … yes, yes, absolutely.
Alison Jones: That’s a great … because the copy editor won’t let you off the hook.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Yes.
Alison Jones: You’re going to have to find them and it’s going to take you a lot longer second time round. Yes, wise words, absolutely. Now, I always ask people to recommend a business book that they have particularly enjoyed, so what … Obviously Post-Truth Business, got it, but what business book apart from that would you recommend that everybody listening to this podcast should read if they haven’t read already?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Business, I must admit, I tend to go down more the sort of cultural route, so-
Alison Jones: We take a very broad interpretation of business book on this show.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Exactly, so the book for me of this year has been Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness, which might have a-
Alison Jones: Oh I’ve seen that, haven’t read it.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Yes, it’s absolutely brilliant and it might not be the most engaging title, but is absolutely … I mean literally brilliant, really, really good. In terms of looking at how … let me think, what’s happening socially/culturally, Alt-America by David Neiwert is very, very good. Back in the UK, in terms of … For those interested in politics, how this has all played out in the media, which obviously has been held under the spotlight as never before, with obviously the whole fake news thing and the changes in the structure of the media and all the rest of it, Ctrl-Alt-Delete by Tom Baldwin is very, very good. If you just want to talk about truth, then the compendium Orwell on Truth which came out last year is really, really great as any Orwell-
Alison Jones: Gosh, yes, I bet that’s really timely. Well not timely because it’s obviously old but I bet it’s good.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Oh it’s really, really brilliant.
Alison Jones: A new piquancy, yeah, fantastic. Great recommendations. Thank you Sean, love those. Now if people want to find out more about you, more about The Post-Truth Business, where should they go?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Just go to brandpositive.org and it’s all there.
Alison Jones: Fantastic, well that’s nice and easy. I’ll put that link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com if you forget it, but thank you so much. That was genuinely one of those interviews where you could have carried on talking about this issue for so long because it is absolutely fascinating and the ramifications are so huge but thank you so much for your time today.
Sean Pillot de Chenecey: No, not at all, thank you.