“The Trial of Christine Keeler” on the BBC has been a great production and shows how at that time in history stories were much slower to unravel and hit the front pages. Slow, but not impossible, and in the end, the truth comes out. I mean, “Where is Christine?” is only a headline for about 20 minutes these days before someone pops their picture up on Instagram.
Speed and the ability to access information from multiple sources within a few clicks means that it’s harder for businesses to obscure what’s going on behind the curtain. In my run-in with Teapigs some years back, it was a relatively simple Google search to find reliable sources that contradicted their story. And look at the flak most of the supermarkets have taken over their “farm” brands that appear to have no more to them than pretty pictures.
All exposed really easily, and then the alternative story spread as fast the original. Makes you wonder if the tale is worth the effort.
The number one reason for being transparent
From the depiction of John Profumo’s life, it must be pretty damned exhausting having an affair. All that brainpower spent on remembering who you’ve told what to, where you said you were and why, and everything in between. So the number one reason for being transparent is simple.
Less energy spent on maintaining a fiction. More energy spent on building your business, and building truthful strong connections with people.
The truth, the whole truth
When you tell your story, you know whether you’re telling the truth. The way you tell the truth is up to you and doesn’t have to be dull. Your story might be fascinating, full of trial and error, ups and downs. As a smaller business, you might have quite enough drama to your story to not need any embellishment.
Don’t mistake the truth with dullness. Equally, don’t ignore the dull stuff.
When boring stuff is a virtue
I think Oatly is the Innocent of the 21st Century, at least from a copy and tone of voice perspective. If you’ve ever picked up one of their oat milks, then you’re probably familiar with “The Boring Side”.
Every food product needs versions of this information, and every industry has its version of the boring side, even if it’s just terms and conditions. The Oatly text is simple and explains what’s going on inside, and outside, with the packaging. It also goes slightly further than many at the moment with a climate footprint.
That might turn into a competitive advantage, as I think they have first-mover advantage in their market with this information. What was the boring stuff suddenly has something new and fascinating to say. Watch other people go after this.
What’s your boring stuff, and what can you make of it?
Putting it all out there
Got a furrowed brow? Wondering where the boundaries are? What’s yours and yours alone?
When you’re a smaller business, particularly a founder-led business, then it’s a tough divide. You probably spend some time telling your story as a way of engaging customers in what you do and why.
You might tell them the story of the time your brother dropped a tin of Spam on your head while playing shops as a kid, and wondering why that didn’t put you off working in retail (sorry Bud, I’m over it. Really). Or you might be serious, business-only all the way. There’s a difference here between what you choose to reveal, and deliberately misdirecting people.
I was thinking of the truly amazing Nell Gifford of Gifford’s Circus. Nell was incredibly open about her battle with primary and then secondary cancer, on the good days and less good. It was her choice and very in keeping with my perception of her personality. It might not be the choice you’d make, but there’s a difference between making a positive choice about what you won’t talk about, and choosing to tell a different story to reality.
What about the money?
When I tried to think about the topics that we as Brits might be most uncomfortable talking about, then I reckoned that money was probably at the top of the list. Lloyds Bank even made it into an advert.
(Full disclosure, my brother (he of the tin dropping on the head) works in marketing at Lloyds Bank. As far as I know, he had nothing to do with this one.)
Then there are businesses like Beauty Pie which operates with a “totally transparent costs” model. You can see for every product what it cost to produce, warehouse and do the safety testing. You can see the difference between what you pay and what they paid. I can’t actually find any statement on profit, but you could work out something from those two sums I guess. That bit is slightly less than transparent at first glance.
It can only be your business decision on what you do. Again, it comes down to if you’re going to talk about money try not to tell half the story and leave questions, and certainly don’t tell something that isn’t your story.
Do your customers want you to be transparent?
When I was doing some research for this post, I came across a series of questions, focusing on whether transparency would be important to your customers, and whether it would add value for them.
I’ve scratched my head about those two things.
I’m trying to think about what kind of business would say it wouldn’t be important to their customers. Or where having more information wouldn’t be a good thing for a customer. I came to the conclusion it was probably only a business with something to hide that would say it wouldn’t be important.
For most smaller businesses, then talking to the customer about how you got started, how your product is made, who’s involved, all those things are part of your advantage over big “faceless” brands. I think you have to ask yourself if those businesses see transparency as a new essential then why wouldn’t you? I would imagine most small businesses have a lot fewer skeletons in closets than many bigger businesses.
What do you have to lose?
An example: transparency in the tobacco industry
When I was thinking of industries that might have something to hide, then tobacco was on my list of ideas. I’ve never smoked, having lost my dad at a very early age who was a heavy smoker. Not a tobacco fan.
Now, I can’t say I have researched this exhaustively, but I was impressed with the content from Philip Morris International, one of the world’s largest cigarette businesses. I was surprised to find that they have committed themselves to a future of smoke-free products, to replace traditional cigarettes completely.
Yes, I was cynical, probably still am a bit. There’s a bit of content for that too, titled “Ten Questions Skeptics Often Ask PMI”. And it’s true; those are questions I would have. I think I remain slightly cynical, but I’d also give them a bit more benefit of the doubt, and keep an eye on where they get to on their promises.
They’ve raised the stakes by taking this kind of stand, and imagine this will come back to haunt them if they deviate off this path, or do a u-turn. When you start being transparent, it’s hard to go back from this.
If a business like PMI is being transparent with its content, then why wouldn’t you?