Do Businesses Really Want the Truth?

The Impossible Truth

“I want the truth!” Tom Cruise shouts at Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. In reply, Nicholson sneers, “You can’t handle the truth.”

If you look around today, you’ll find plenty of evidence that Jack is right. The leading Republican candidate for president is Donald Trump, and according to Politifact only 6% of his statements are true or mostly true. Falsehood isn’t merely a conservative affliction either. A recent study by the American Press Institute showed that people spreading misinformation on Twitter, which strongly skews liberal, outnumber those trying to fight misinformation by 2.7 to 1.

Part of the problem lies in data, believe it or not. Access to increased data and information apparently makes us less inclined to seek truth—and more inclined to retrench in our biases. For example, a group of researchers studying fan opinion during the New England Patriots Deflategate scandal found that only 36% of Patriots fans felt Brady was guilty. On the other hand, 65% of opposing fans thought he was. And increased knowledge unfortunately didn’t change this bias—it made it worse. The more a Pats fan knew about the scandal, the more likely he was to find Brady innocent, and vice versa.

Reality check

You might think that businesses would be a beacon of logic and reality in this sea of un-truthiness. With all of the data at our disposal, we should be able to uncover and accept the inconvenient facts about our companies. But time and again when tasked with solving seemingly easy problems, brands gloss over the truth. They lie to themselves about their products and what consumers are willing to do and buy.

Two surprising facts bear this out. First, while we’re spending more on data, we’re using it less. The percentage of projects that make use of analytics has actually dropped since 2012 to only 31%. In addition, confidence in marketers is falling. In spite of our new emphasis on data and ROI, CEOs nonetheless trust CMOs less than they did three years ago.

Hear those alarm bells ringing? You should. Because we need the truth—even if it does hurt. Brands that embrace truth obviously have a huge advantage over those that bury their heads in the sand. Truth is the only way we can get honest insights about our business, brands, or consumers—and it’s the only way to truly innovate.

Finding Breakthrough Solutions

How do we stop embracing false narratives and focus on what really matters? The first step is to acknowledge the problem and give it a name. Let’s call these unhappy facts “Impossible Truths.” They are things we don’t want to know about our businesses, but desperately need to acknowledge. Next, we need to get serious about uncovering them. To do so, we have to embrace four ideas:

  1. Start with category data. Thanks to technology, everyone is bombarded with information, often the same information. As a result, everyone has an opinion. To get to the truth, begin with data about the market forces shaping your industry or category. Understand what’s going on outside, and then step back and look objectively at your own issues as a team.
  2. Acknowledge the elephant in the room. Most businesses have one. That thing that everyone says about you but no one wants to admit. Smoking causes cancer. Big box stores are impersonal. People associate your brand with their parents. As much as we’d like to ignore these things, we do so at our peril. Instead, we must debate and discuss them, in order to find ways to get past them.
  3. Embrace conflict. This is tough. Most of us don’t like conflict. It’s challenging and uncomfortable. But you will never find the truth without debate. The most respected companies in the world have proven over and over that conflict exposes ideas and leads to better decisions. That said, we have to engage in conflict in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on culture. It should lead to positive outcomes, not bruised egos.
  4. Watch what people do, not just what they say. An overreliance on hard data can sometimes trip you up. Recently, for example, our team worked with a beverage brand. Data suggested that millennials had no interest in it (think champagne). If you asked them directly or looked at their short-term buying patterns, you’d come to the conclusion that they didn’t care for the drink at all. However, by observing them, we learned they invariably consumed it at celebrations, like anniversaries and birthdays. Obviously, that insight had a profound effect on our strategy.

Put simply, truth is a necessary evil.

While people have long hoped that better access to information would lead to better decisions, we now know that’s not the case. The solution? Renounce complacency. Understand that data doesn’t insulate us from being human. We need to confront the Impossible Truths—and use that confrontation to find breakthrough opportunities. Data and information may not set you free, but the truth always will.

Originally published on Huffington Post here and Advertising Week here.


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