Brand Transparency

22nd May 2012
Paul Bailey

What is brand transparency, and what does it mean for brands, consumers and branding itself?

If you listen to business or political leaders then you will have heard a lot of the term ‘transparency’ recently. It seems that everyone wants to let us know they are ‘transparent’, but what does this mean and why all of a sudden does everyone want to be seen as such? I have recently written a paper on brand transparency, its causes and effects, and was encouraged to put a very abridged version up here. Should you be interested in reading any more of my thoughts on brand transparency then I’d be happy to send the full paper.

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There are two key types of transparency, literal and abstract. Literal being more analytical, data-driven and mechanical and abstract being more representative, relational and simulation. All transparency is intended to involve stakeholders in the processes and information of a brand (company/political party/etc), to make all stakeholders feel a part of the brand, to feel involved. Brand transparency is often said to have been preceded by ‘ethical consumerism’ but in my opinion the key element isn’t ethics but is the desire for ‘authenticity’.

There are many suggested causes of brand transparency, but I would argue the key cause is the changing role of branding itself. Branding has developed from a means of identification, to differentiation, to reputation, to relation. Brands create values which stakeholders can buy in to, they have spent years ‘humanising’ themselves with the purpose of creating emotional connections with consumers. The aim has been to build relationships between consumers and brands, and now consumers are demanding brands be genuine and authentic. Why shouldn’t they, who wants to be in a relationship which isn’t authentic?

Of course the changing technological landscape is enabling consumers to be more demanding, more informed, more connected, and so has created a framework by which consumers can ask questions of brands and to a degree ‘govern’ them. It is through this connectivity that better relationships can be built, if brands are genuine and authentic. Brands and consumers now have the framework to develop truly reciprocal relationships, to create shared social value and values. To do this brands have to see transparency as real openness to share successes and failures, and not simply a marketing strategy to show selected successes. If brands really want to ‘humanise’ then they must remember that humans are fallible, and that it is one reason we like people. No-one is perfect.

It is my opinion that genuine brand transparency handled with intelligence and emotion can take brands, and branding, to a place where authentic relationships can be built around shared social values. Admittedly most of what you will hear in the media being referred to as transparency is nothing of the sort, at least by my definition, but brand transparency can be the opportunity for branding to move away from being ‘short-termist, shareholder focussed, narcissistic and communications led’ (Allan, M. ed Ind, N. 2003: 222). Businesses, political parties, or any other branded group need to see that it is the earning of trust, openness and sharing social values that will help create better, authentic relationships and therefore better business.

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As I say, this is an extremely abridged version of my thoughts on brand transparency so should you wish to read more let me know. This is my opinion, if you disagree, agree, whichever, let me know, I’d love to hear other comments and opinions. Also, if you would like to read on the subject of transparency then I’d recommend the two books below as a good place to start.

Ind, N. (ed.) (2003), Beyond Branding: how the new values of transparency and integrity are changing the world of brands, London and Philadelphia: Kogan Page.

Elkington, J. (1999), Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, Capstone.

It is my opinion that genuine brand transparency handled with intelligence and emotion can take brands, and branding, to a place where authentic relationships can be built around shared social values.