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The BP oil spill, the Goldman Sachs indictment. …When was the last time you heard a business leader or company speak honestly about a situation? No one in corporate America seems to want to accept responsibility for anything. It would be so refreshing to hear something honest from a politician, athlete, celebrity or corporate executive, like “we messed up” or “here is the situation we’re facing” or “no, our product can’t do that but we’re working on it.”  Wouldn’t it be refreshing to actually experience the type of benefits touted in companies’ marketing, particularly in their customer service?

There used to be a time when people believed the marketing messages in ads—and believed in political propaganda—but not any more. Thanks to developments in technology and communications, most notably the Internet, more people than ever can see it all for what it really is.

Banks have collapsed, economies are faltering or failing, auto manufacturers took multi-billion dollar bailout packages, and many consumers have lost their last hopes that the pie-in-the-sky claims made in ads are even remotely true.

That’s why transparency, honesty and trust are so important for brands today.

In a time when there are so many reasons not to trust institutions, people are looking for greater meaning and sincerity from companies they choose to do business with—fueled by a desire to connect with things that feel safe, certain and unambiguous. (Think of fast-growing brands like Google, Apple and IKEA, that all have authenticity at their core.)

On the other hand, when a brand’s rhetoric becomes out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, its integrity and future efforts at persuasion suffer. When that happens, you run the risk of magnifying the issue geometrically—audiences have the power to seize control of your brand, spread the word and damage your reputation.

Case in point: When McDonald’s launched its “We love to see you smile” campaign several years ago, pundits like Advertising Age‘s Bob Garfield, were vehemently negative—arguing that filthy restrooms and grumpy counter help made the ads run “preposterously false.” To make matters worse, after the campaign ran for a year, published reports revealed that rude employees were costing Mickey D’s millions of dollars in lost sales.

The net, net: Tell it like it is.  Be honest, truthful, and real. Create expectations for your brand in consumers’ minds—and then do your best to deliver on those expectations every time and in every customer interaction.

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