Shiv Singh has been a top digital marketer for more than two decades, including for PepsiCo and Visa.
In 2019, he compiled his lessons learned in the book, “Savvy: Navigating Fake Companies, Fake Leaders and Fake News in the Post-Trust Era,” with his co-author, wife and business partner, Rohini Luthra, a clinical psychologist. When he thinks What the Future, Singh sees a fundamental shift in how brands should communicate in the post-truth era.
Kate MacArthur: How is brand marketing different in this post-truth era?
Shiv Singh: It hasn’t changed dramatically as yet. But what marketers need to think about is a few key things. Firstly, their brands do not have the natural, organic credibility that they once did. Trust in businesses, while higher than governments, comparatively is still very low. Trust in anything that’s coming through the media ecosystem is extremely low. And trust in anyone that represents anything that touches the lightning rod of politics is through the floor. So, all of this creates an environment where the usual tools and techniques that marketers have used to build trust and communicate with their constituents are being threatened.
MacArthur: How does the post-truth era change how brands should be marketed?
Singh: Brand marketing has been built on the idea of having a good story to tell and capturing the hearts and minds of consumers. The emphasis needs to be on capturing the minds first and then the hearts. And if there’s any fundamental flip that’s taken place, that’s it. As brands do this, they need to really depend much more heavily on being fact-based. That means talking about their sources of information, using experts staying in their own swim lanes where they have natural credibility and permission, taking extra effort to inform and educate versus just entertain and celebrate. It’s all of those things that matter more immensely. Brands sit in the context of a society. And they need to be a lot more conscious of their role in society and be willing to stand for what is right, which they haven’t really had to do in any meaningful sense in the past.
MacArthur: How can brands avoid becoming unwitting participants or sponsors of disinformation?
Singh: The way they have to respond is not by waiting for something bad to happen. Instead, they have to explain and articulate their position, their set of facts, and their narrative before they’re in a moment of crisis. They need to make sure that they’ve always done their homework, because often in those disinformation or misinformation campaigns, there’s a seed of truth in them.
Sometimes a spark can come from mistakes within the company itself. So, they have to be a lot more buttoned up in that regard. When it comes to misinformation, you never have enough information on your own to counter it. If you are a medical product, then it’s with the scientists, or if you’re a car manufacturer, then it could be with the authorities that investigate car crashes. You have to have much tighter and much more open relationships with them so that when the moment of disinformation happens, they know enough about your business to lay out the facts in a credible, third-party fashion.
MacArthur: How do you get consumers to think of companies and brands as truthful?
Singh: Trust is all about taking a leap of faith. Tied to that is this really important concept that trust should be and is context-specific. Now, brands would assume that they are trusted in a lot of different contexts, historically. That’s not the case anymore. And that’s such a critical difference that brands have to be mindful of and know where they can and should be clustered, and not assume to be trusted just because they are a top 50 brand in some global ranking or the other.
MacArthur: That’s a really great point. How big of an issue could disinformation be in the future with companies weaponizing disinformation against competing brands?
Singh: If a brand is being misleading in a way where it’s saying, “We’re just having a bit of fun online and we’re joking around,” at a time like this, it can absolutely be interpreted in the wrong way. They absolutely have to be extra cautious, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The flip side to this is: Especially here in America because of what’s going on politically and through the tech platforms, we’re looking for more humor and the simplicity of the way life used to be. So, yes, I do think brands can play with humor. But we have to be really careful about words being misinterpreted, misconstrued, or sliced and used in ways that make them weaponized.