by Jacob Geiger
Transparency is no longer a choice for businesses, Kelly O'Keefe announced Wednesday.
O'Keefe, the chief creative officer at public relations and ad agency CRT/tanaka and a professor at the VCU Brandcenter, told the Public Relations Society of America's Richmond chapter that transparency in business and other facets of life is being enforced by an army of iPhone-wielding customers who will photograph, Tweet and post about their every experience.
"If you take shortcuts and a product fails, not only will we immediately know about the failure, we will know you took shortcuts," he said.
In this atmosphere -- O'Keefe likened it to the entire world living in a small town like Guthrie, Okla., where his wife grew up -- large majorities of Americans don't trust big companies and the marketing messages they hear.
That's bad news for a marketers and big companies, but good news for small, locally focused startups.
"When I was a kid, we believed a big corporation or a corporation that had been around for 50 or 100 years was a strong company. Today consumers trust GM and Hertz less than they trust Tesla and Zipcar."
The way forward for companies, O'Keefe said, is "brand candor," a willingness and openness to let customers behind the scenes on both good days and bad.
"Consumers want to know an organization's values, and this is especially important to Millennials," he said. Truth is a rare commodity, but the good news is that a scarce commodity increases in value."
In prior eras, marketing focused on the brand -- you learned about the virtues of Crest Toothpaste, not about the virtues of Proctor & Gamble. That's changing, O'Keefe said, as we "move to a world where the company and the brand are one and the same."
That means focusing on how a product is made -- the materials, people and processes behind what someone picks up in the store.
And if pulling back the curtain exposes flaws, that's alright. After all, O'Keefe noted, consumers are sharing their own flaws, failings and struggles online every day.
"Flawed is the new perfect," O'Keefe said. "Look at Chrysler's 'Imported from Detroit' commercial [that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl]. You have to run straight at perceived problems and who you are."
O'Keefe said companies should work to understand the culture and community in which they operate, then further narrow the focus to learn about the customer and ultimately the business' core conviction. Once that conviction is understood, a business can build those convictions into all of its communication with the world.
That sort of candor -- understanding the company's core convictions and sharing them with the world -- will allow companies to weather ups and downs, he said.
"A challenge that is overcome well builds higher loyalty and customer satisfaction than if you never had a problem," he said.