Who Wins in the Honesty Game? Almost Everyone

Posted on September 5, 2014 by Marian Salzman

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately about the new American centers of cool—smaller cities with a youthful, entrepreneurial vibe and great quality of life … except then the rest of us discover them, they become fast-growing markets, and the locals become insanely pissed at whomever gave away their big secret, or not-so secret (as I wrote when I flagged red-hot Austin last year).

Whenever I see a study or infographic about the American mindset and how it varies by location, I pay attention. I am infographic-obsessed in general (I never met a picture I didn’t want to read, if you get my drift), so my friend and former co-author Ann O’Reilly, also employed at Havas, flipped me this one on Daily Infographic about honesty. She thought I might be particularly interested to know that Providence, R.I., where Havas PR (the agency I run) has an office, turned up in this (rather unscientific) study as the least honest place in America.

True confessions (after all, the topic is honesty): I have a soft spot for Providence, where I landed my first job after graduating from Brown University. But for all the altruistic-mindedness I’ve seen in Providence, this admittedly informal study, which was conducted by Honest Tea (get it?), said otherwise. It asked Americans in 62 cities across 50 states plus Washington, D.C., to take tea from an unmanned kiosk and pay the suggested $1 price. Although the country was 95 percent honest overall, only 80 percent of the people in Providence paid the dollar. Fifteen percentage points less honest?

Honest cities got me thinking about the emerging American character and “truthiness,” one of those buzzwords I have always loved. Is Providence more truthy than truthful?

Looking at the larger trend, though, if 80 percent is the low mark, that says a lot about American integrity and character. A full 50 cities had marks in the 90s, and 30 of those hit 95 percent or higher. Americans like to pay for their tea, even if no one is explicitly asking them to, or even watching.

I like to believe that this sort of honesty among consumers is the flip side of the trust they have in brands that matter. Doing the right thing is a two-way street: Brands play it straight with us, then we’re more inclined to play it straight with them. Everyone is honest, and everyone wins.

Havas Worldwide explored this phenomenon last year in a Prosumer Report titled “Building Brands That Matter. Our research found that the most successful brands—Patagonia, Levi’s and Warby Parker among them—are those that have found the sweet spot between trust and dynamism. Those brands build trust by standing for quality, acting with transparency, proclaiming their roots and aiming for “multilocal,” meaning they convey a quality that’s more mom-and-pop shop than multinational conglomerate. And they display dynamism by doing good in the world, interacting on social media and creating a seamless brand experience.

When brands make themselves matter, they also make us want to be better, more honest consumers. We’ve seen predecessors of this phenomenon, like Radiohead’s successful pay-what-you-want experiment in 2007. We’ve also seen plenty of examples of people not being honest enough to pay even listed prices, as everyone who has “borrowed” a Netflix DVD or HBO GO password can attest—but then again, big media companies aren’t generally perceived as the most trustworthy brands.

Still, considering how many people find ways around paying for things online, I was heartened to see so many Americans being honest about their tea. So was Daily Infographic, which marveled that Honolulu got a perfect 100 percent honesty score, concluding: “With only a small percent margin in difference, this little test has proven that we’re all pretty honest people in America.” But it also pointed out that a lot of people contributed foreign currency or coupons, or found other creative ways to “pay”—very much the American way in action.

The survey correlated tea-buying honesty with other metrics, too, such as favorite TV show, musical taste, preferred pet, astrological sign and relationship status. But the differences were slight overall; dog lovers ranked at 98 percent honesty and cat lovers 95 percent. Rock and hip-hop fans are 100 percent honest, with Christian music listeners coming in slightly lower, at 99 percent, and country fans at 97 percent.

Astrology didn’t seem to matter: A few signs came up at 96 percent, while the others were all 95 percent. “Cops” fans are noticeably more honest than “Homeland” fans, but all TV watchers are admirably honest, with at least 90 percent. And somehow all the separated tea drinkers (and 98 percent of those divorced) ponied up the cash, while only 94 percent of those who are engaged did. Apparently the euphoria and optimism of being engaged either makes people forgetful or doesn’t support an impetus toward honesty.

I know enough about metrics and survey results to understand that these numbers aren’t definitive and the differences aren’t necessarily all that meaningful. But I love seeing brands and marketers who have the initiative to examine these close cross-sections of Americans. And now we know that if the barista is a bit nicer to the Hawaiian woman in line ahead of us who has no ring on her left hand but rock music coming out of her iPod, there’s a good reason for that.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Daniel Oines]

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