On what has become known as Super Sunday - Day Nine at the Rio Olympics - I was chatting to a friend who said in jest "they will be launching a drugs investigation on Team GB if we keep winning gold medals at this rate!"
Whilst we laughed it was sadly symptomatic of a world in which we struggle to trust - if something is too good we battle to believe. Whilst I think we Brits have a particular skill in cynicism, it got me thinking about how we constantly live in a tug of war between ambition and reality, stretch and credibility. It is a world in which we make choices much of the time because we want something better - whether that is a new dress or a new job - and brands persuade us to believe. And we need them to keep on validating our belief in them - whether that is our favourite fashion brand or our employer - so we keep on coming back for more.
The fine line between selling a dream and the need for authenticity has grown as a discussion in the world of brands and branding. At a recent Prophet event, one of our guests asked our own branding guru and Vice Chairman David Aaker if the stories brands told had to be true? What a question - we held our breaths waiting for his answer. "Not necessarily" he replied, "but whatever story you tell you need to know there is substance behind it."
This is a really wise answer! Because we all know that stories can become truths. I was reflecting on the line you often see associated with books and films "based on a true story" but actually what you then experience is typically only a version of the truth - and yet we tend to believe what we are seeing, hearing and reading are the facts.
Given my particular focus on organisational culture and the engagement of talent the question of whether brands - and of course the employee lens on those brands (the employer brand) -can get away with stretching the truth is a particularly critical one . Talent no longer absorbs corporate "propaganda" as it might have done a generation ago. Today people know they can develop their own point of view by reading and then validating stories - both within their own organisations and for companies they might be thinking about as a future employer.
So rather than thinking about employees as recipients of brand stories the focus is moving to employees as the story tellers who actually drive more belief in the brand than any other audience - both within their own ranks and for customers and clients too. Someone's story about their experience working for company X is of course their version of the truth - but the "substance" that David referred to and that we all want to uncover is now a matter of a few clicks away - or not.
Given that all brands are designed to capture a care "story" in the first place - what is it that underpins a brand that tells its stories well? This is a question we have explored through our research at Prophet and the overarching factor is relevance - a brand that has a place in our lives and therefore we are compelled to take notice of. But within this concept of relevance are a number of dimensions - one of which has a particular impact on our ability to believe. We talk about this as "distinctive inspiration" - a brand that gives a sense of purpose we can believe in. That does not have to mean something "higher order" - more something that addresses meaning for us. That meaning motivates us to believe - not blindly of course. But if other elements provide the substance that lives up to that meaning we have a brand that is selling it stories well.
Let's go back to the Rio Olympics. Team GB is a great brand that has carefully built its relevance in our lives. And the vast majority of people believe - in what they stand for, the purpose they set out to achieve and now after an extraordinary two weeks the substance that has been assembled in their extraordinary medal tally the underpins their brand story. And they have managed their story telling brilliantly - in particular using social networks to really amplify their approach.