Radical Transparency: The New Normal

Posted on November 17, 2015 by Marian Salzman

 Thorsten Hansen

[Originally posted by the National Retail Federation.]

Can I tell you a secret?

There are no secrets. Not anymore. We’re living in a time when, within four years, Snapchat went from a private, self-detonating sexting/texting app to the latest platform for brands and influencers to engage their followings and followers.

Radical transparency” has been a catchphrase for years now, a standby on annual trend reports. But it’s no longer a trend. It’s not a phase that will end. It’s the new normal. And anyone who isn’t used to it had better get used to it, and soon.

Maybe it’s easier for us to wrap our heads around this on a personal level, but the ramifications for brands and retailers are even bigger. It used to be enough to have a cool campaign (as “Mad Men” so brilliantly proved). Then it was cool to have a human-scale, authentic (to use another big buzzword) backstory: Think TOMS Shoes, which spawned the one-for-one philanthropy movement, or Best Made Co., which made axes surprisingly cool among urbanites. No longer. Now it’s not just spinning your brand; it’s candidly acknowledging all the parts that you didn’t really want people to know.

And so, as I’m preparing my keynote speech for Retail’s BIG Show in January, I’m thinking about how profound the transparency shifts have been. There are no secrets for the social networkers or the brand storytellers, not even for the crisis PR professionals. It’s not about getting in front of the story in order to change it or control it; it’s about owning (and admitting to) the story in order to retain trustworthiness and credibility.

A transparency case in point (pun intended): Two years ago, the posh athleisure retailer Lululemon came under fire for the thinning of the Luon fabric in its signature yoga pants that women were wearing to the grocery store as much as to the yoga studio. Lululemon proactively responded to it—not by reminding consumers that naked yoga is now a thing, so who cares about see-through pants?—but by posting a lengthy FAQ on its website, issuing a press release and publicly offering refunds to those who bought the unsatisfactory pants.

Even when they aren’t in crisis mode, savvy brands are going the transparent route now. Confidentiality is a mirage. Millennials believe privacy is something you store in your heart. Everything is public and permanent and knowable. We overshare because, well, why not?

Search “transparent marketing campaign” and you get a host of big-deal examples: Panera’s “Food As It Should Be” initiative and Domino’s plan to talk up the idea that its product tasted like cardboard (and then change it). Even one of the biggest brands in the world gave it a shot: McDonald’s tried a campaign last year called “Our Food, Your Questions.”

The upshot for this trend is big, too. For retailers, the supply chain is now out in the open. For consumers, so are the details of what you bought, where you bought it and how much you paid for it. No more secrets.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Thorsten Hansen]

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