Managing brands in a post-rational world
By being purveyors of truthiness (see Box 1), brands place themselves at risk. However, the abundance of fake news and post-fact in our post-rational era are even more powerful forces imperiling brands. We propose two kinds of solutions for both sources of risk: First, technical actions that can be undertaken to address false news and, second, systemic steps that can be undertaken to rethink the management of brands in order to inoculate against various forms of “fakery” and to reestablish stakeholder trust.
Technical actions to prevent brand damage
Technical solutions involve addressing each of the four types of relationships that brands have with fake news that are summarized in Figure 1: enabling, validation, contamination and targeting. Obviously, enabling (through funding), validation and contamination are interrelated and are underpinned by two issues. First, how to minimize the placement of brand adverts adjacent to fake news stories and second, when such pairings do occur, how to minimize the damage.
The minimization of pairing of brand advertisements and fake news involves changing the ways in which marketers target consumers. Ideally, algorithmically selected sites should be screened by trained observers, just as Wikipedia screens dubious content. In the longer term, humans can be augmented by deep learning AI programs that have been trained by humans to spot fake news stories. Alternatively, or in addition, consumers themselves can be recruited to identify fake news and flag spurious content and the associated web sites.
When brand advertisements do appear next to fake news stories, remedies are twofold. First, consumers can be educated about fake news and the algorithmic targeting used by advertisers, similar to the current efforts to educate consumers about phishing scams. Second, consumer brand advocates can be enlisted and enabled to alert managers when a brand advert has been coupled with inappropriate content.
Systemic approaches to reduce fake-news risk
Systemic solutions involve a rethinking of brands and branding. It means taking a good, long, hard look in the mirror and frankly acknowledging that business has been complicit in creating the post-rational culture we now inhabit (see Box 1). Too often, brands have become ends in themselves, uncoupled from the reality of the offerings they adorn. Toyota didn't become one of the biggest and most respected car companies by appealing to magical thinking. It got there by making reliable cars. Tesla did not come from nothing to be the largest maker of electric cars in a mere four years by appealing to ecological thinking. It got there by making electric cars outperform gas-powered cars – although its ecological appeal obviously helped.
Brands are not ends in themselves; they are the result of outstanding offerings. Certainly, they can act as interpretive frames, but they don’t unilaterally create reality, as many seem to believe. One way forward is to look at brands not as objects but as processes – specifically, perceptual processes (see Box 2) – and manage them accordingly.