I’m reading Rohit Bhargava’s book likeonomics at the moment. To simplify Rohit’s argument perhaps a bit too much, he argues that likeability is a function of evolution. We’ve learned to make people like us so they’ll help us survive.
I hope to be interviewing Rohit soon for this blog and I'm looking forward to discussing his book in a lot more depth.
(By the way, baby animal faces look cute to us for the same reason - it's to make us want to feed them. This is also why Hollywood makeup artists accentuate the eyes and lips of female actresses like Marilyn Monroe to make them appear closer together and baby-faced. Men and women both wanted to look after Marilyn. She wasn’t a threat.)
Rohit suggests that the only way out of the believability crisis in which business finds itself today is for corporations to make themselves liked by telling the truth. They do this by adopting a policy that Rohit condenses into a nice little acronym:
TRUST = TRUTH + RELEVANCE + UNSELFISHNESS + SIMPLICITY+TIMING
So far so true. (And I have to say I felt satisfyingly smug when I saw how closely Rohit’s principles for communication adhere to my own. But, then again, none of this is rocket science, is it?)
I’d suggest you read Rohit’s book because it’s stuffed with entertaining examples that back up his central argument instead of ramming it home. Including a great one about PR pioneer Ivy Lee, uncle to William Burroughs, a writer who was also obsessed with truth. Ivy Lee enjoyed a glittering career as an early spin doctor until he decided to become unpaid US PR for the Nazis in the 1930s. After this, he was reviled as ‘Poison Ivy’.
The truth about Volkswagen
Reading likeanomics, I tried to think of corporations that I actually liked, Volkswagen came to mind. I guess it’s because I’ve always admired those 1960s press ads done by Doyle Dane Bernbach (‘Lemon’, ‘Think Small’) that changed advertising for good. It’s also because I think of cute little Lovebugs and funky hippy surfer camper vans.
Volkswagen could also have been on my mind because it was Bernbach who championed believability and truth-telling in advertising.
Today’s Volkswagen is anything but funky and cute, as what the media’s calling the great ‘diesel dupe’ shows. (At least they didn’t call it Dieselgate.) VW cars sold in America were fitted with devices that BBC.com said ‘could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results’.
VW has admitted to cheating emissions tests in the US. The group’s chief executive at the time, Martin Winterkorn, said VW had ‘broken the trust of our customers and the public’.
So why did VW do it?
VW had spent a fortune marketing its diesel cars in America. Someone inside the company wanted to make sure this wasn’t wasted and the company didn’t lose face by having to admit its cars didn't do what VW said they did.
Whether VW’s top brass knew what was going on or not, the company is obviously driven by the need to deliver profits for shareholders. So it cheated and is now faced with losing even more money and seeing its reputation trashed.
Rohit would, I’m sure, say that if VW had behaved correctly in the first place it would remain trusted and believable. It might even have gained likeability because it told the truth in a potentially disastrous situation. But that’s avoiding a deeper truth.
It comes down to the bottom line
As long as business puts making money before anything else it will remain fundamentally incapable of telling the absolute, unvarnished truth.
Consumers will remain deeply cynical of companies that adopt the warm fuzzy rhetoric of social media and our supposedly kinder, greener, more socially inclusive society while lying to us.
The words of any organisation are worthless if they're not backed up by action.