How Brands Can Close The Credibility Gap

We’re seeing what seems to be a growing gap between what brands say and what they do. We call this gap the Credibility Gap. And we believe the bigger the gap, the more damaging it can be to the value of a brand — because the more pronounced customers’ experience of this gap is, the less trust they will have in the brand. This, we argue, can hurt brand performance over time…

A brand is a promise that needs to be kept

It’s often said that a brand is the promise a business makes to customers. And few of us would argue against the idea that brands should keep those promises. However, to do that obviously takes consistent investment over time. Not just in product/service improvement or innovation, but also in helping people understand those efforts.

That’s something we don’t see enough of… and it’s a problem.

When the customer experience of a brand falls below its ‘promise’ (the set of expectations people have of it) the brand suffers damage — even if, at first, the damage is an imperceptible hairline fracture.

However, these hairline cracks have a cumulative effect. And, if a brand consistently talks more than it walks, there can be a visible deterioration in its value. Blackberry’s brand promise of “the fastest email and texting tool” lost credibility when the products failed to deliver — the damage done so bad that even when the products caught up, the sales didn’t follow.

Is the Credibility Gap widening?

As media saturation increases our focus in the advertising & marketing industry is becoming heavily skewed towards capturing attention — i.e. we concentrate on finding ever-more creative ways to grab eyeballs, penetrate eardrums and stop thumbs.

This isn’t a problem in itself. But it becomes a problem when the default solution to grabbing attention is to overstate the brand promise.

There are several trends we see that have this effect:

  • Strategically over-reaching with higher-order benefits.
    “Our fizzy drink is refreshing and peps you up. That makes it fun to enjoy with friends. We’re all about friendship and having fun together. When people get together they can change the world! SOMEONE CALL KENDALL JENNER!!!” Brands can be a force for good in the world, but this is rarely the promise they should make… because we all know they have a different priority really.
  • Creatively hyperbolising beyond the accepted advertising “contract”.
    Customers know that brands dramatise their benefits (JustEat’s “Mini Fist Pump” / Money Supermarket’s “EPIC!”) but this can be taken too far; i.e. to the point where the customer’s expectations rise dramatically past the point that the brand can deliver on. For example… nearly every ad the beauty industry has ever produced!
  • Cultural band-wagoning.
    Enough’s been written about brands trying to jump on trends and/or cultural movements and missing the mark… but even when they actually hit the mark and succeed in generating some attention and goodwill, what they’ve achieved here is to make a promise that’s tough to keep. Standing for LGBT rights is a good thing — but it takes more than just an ad for a brand to credibly deliver on it. Burger King have earned the right to talk about this through years of commitment to a solid diversity policy… but how many other brands that have used a rainbow in some comms can say the same? (Yes, Uber, we mean you.)

The other factor to consider, of course, is the sea-change in customer behaviour and expectation. There is no doubt that customers are now more critical than ever, more likely to call-out brands who break promises than ever and more prepared to do that publicly for the whole of the internet to see (if you’re particularly unlucky, in a funny YouTube song that goes viral — poor United Airlines).

This doesn’t necessarily contribute to a widening the Credibility Gap, but it does mean customers are more aware of it, that it’s more visible than ever and it certainly means we should be paying more attention to what we can do to close it.

The effect of the Credibility Gap

Keeping promises builds trust. Breaking them erodes it. Simple, right?

In fact, it’s slightly more nuanced… there are degrees of breaking promises. If, like Bill Clinton, you break your marriage vows*, that’s bad. If, like Tony Blair, you promise a nation another one has nukes when they don’t, and then go to WAR*… that’s REALLY bad. Of those 2 brands, Tony’s suffered more, and rightly so… [*allegedly].

So, a bigger credibility gap is a bigger problem. The more out of sync the brand’s messages are with the customer experience, the faster trust is eroded.

This is obvious when we consider the biggest ones, like when a brand cheats product tests to claim that it performs better than it does in reality (VW’s emission scandal), or when a brand that you trust with your personal data flogs it to a third party which uses it with poor judgement (Facebook / Cambridge Analytica).

Of course these are just the tip of the iceberg. The ones so pronounced they reach the media. But, if we’re honest, this Credibility Gap exists for most brands… so the question becomes “How big is our Credibility Gap?” — something that we’re working on quantifying.

Our view on The Credibility Gap

At Nonsense, we believe “Catch and hold” only pays back down the funnel if the content behind it has substance.

If brands are launching themselves into a new market they need to first have a credible underpinning to do so. If they’re targeting a new, growing, profitable audience, they need to be doing so because they have some real value that they are offering. If they’re launching a new product or service, it needs to stack up to the promise they’re about to make in the advertising. If they’re sponsoring something then there needs to be a clear and meaningful reason for this behaviour. And if they’re using CSR as a way to enhance the value of their brand, then they need to give to, rather than take from, the society or culture that they are inserting themselves into.

We believe credibility is a competitive advantage. Our years of experience in the charity sector (i.e. the sector with the most demanding customer base and no shortage of un-kept promises!) has made this incredibly obvious to us.

But unfortunately, we see commercial brands lagging — ignoring credibility for the lure of being “famous”… only we don’t see those things as mutually exclusive: our solution is to do both! The goal is to be famous for having substance in the products, services and behaviours you exhibit.

We believe this strengthens your brand over time and delivers long term performance gains.

Closing The Credibility Gap; a how-to

1. Be honest with yourself. Think like a customer and assess their brand experience vs. what your advertising promises. Read what they are saying to your customer services team on social media… it won’t be pretty, but it will be illuminating.

2. Consider dialling-down the promises in your ads. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, there’s often a need to make promises more realistic. That doesn’t mean making them boring or uninspiring… people like small benefits and there’s tonnes of creative ways you can grab attention without over-promising. Try Googling “K-Mart Ship My Pants” for inspiration! It’s about making the right promise in the most compelling way you can. By tempering the obsession with capturing attention, we can set ourselves up to build trust.

3. Do something interesting or of value for your customers instead of more ads. A lot has been written about this. And it works — we’ve done it for clients like AXA PPP healthcare ourselves with our Own Your Fears campaign. The issue with this tactic is that to do this properly means genuine product/service improvement & innovation — and re-appropriating your ad budget to do that a) doesn’t buy you much (more nice gestures for customers rather than compelling new propositions), and, b) will eventually cost you the attention you buy advertising for in the first place! Moreover, what we’re finding is that loads of our clients are already doing lots of interesting, valuable things for customers anyway, which leads us to a less obvious answer…

4. Start explaining all the efforts you are making to customers. This isn’t a new idea — we’ll credit David Ogilvy with that one! However, now we’re quickly back to the attention problem; do these functional product/service stories make good ads? Explaining takes time, and we tend to think people won’t read a long copy ad. But you don’t have to do the whole job in the ads. We can create customer journeys. We can re-target. We can buy media formats that allow us to tell our story in more detail. In short, the promise isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s the start. With the right approach, advertising can offer a compelling promise and point people in the direction of further content that unpacks the substance behind the claim.

So in summary, we would advise doing this…

  • Strategy: find the most compelling promise the brand can make to customers and has the evidence to back up.
  • Creative platform: find a brilliant idea that delivers this promise in a way that demands attention and makes unpacking the evidence inherently more interesting.
  • Executional ideas: build a customer journey from the promise all the way to ensuring people cannot possibly doubt that promise. Then populate that with content that builds an argument and evidences your claims along the way.

Simple, eh? OK… obviously easier said than done. In fact in 12 years we’ve done the “full monty” probably 15 times for our clients. But it’s good to know what our ideal solution is and always strive for it.

If you’d like an honest appraisal of your brand’s credibility gap, get in touch. We’re always happy to offer an opinion… we love chatting about this stuff!


By Rob Mosley, Creative Partner & Jamie Chadwick, Strategy Director

London based creative agency. We believe in building brand credibility.

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