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How Truthiness, Fake News and Post-Fact Endanger Brands and What to Do About It

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Brands can interact both directly and indirectly with fake news. In some instances, brands are the victims of fake news and, other times, the purveyors. Brands can either finance fake news or be the targets of it. Indirectly, they can be linked via image transfer, where either fake news contaminates brands, or brands validate fake news. To control the risk of negative image transfer, the authors propose technical actions to address false news and systemic steps to rethink the management of brands in order to inoculate against various forms of “fakery” and to reestablish stakeholder trust. Systemic solutions involve a rethinking of brands and branding. Too often, brands have become uncoupled from the reality of the offerings they adorn. But brands are not ends in themselves, they are the result of outstanding offerings. They can act as interpretive frames, but they don’t unilaterally create reality, as many seem to believe. Brands should not be seen and managed as objects but as perceptual processes.
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How Truthiness, Fake News and
Post-Fact Endanger Brands and
What to Do About It
Pierre Berthon, Emily Treen and Leyland Pitt
The Age of Truthiness and Post-Fact Are alternative
facts, facts?” In the post-fact world, the validity of something
is based on how it feels (truthiness). The “post-fact” world
is, simply, what you wish it to be, regardless of objective,
verifiable statements. Marketing and post-fact merge on
mainstream and social media and can often be tied to one
another. This not only spells trouble for brands, it places them
at risk. One such area of trouble for brands is fake news. Fake
news is nothing new. However, in the recent past, the scale
of the problem has grown exponentially. Incongruously, the
information age has simultaneously given us the misinforma-
tion age. When individuals select both the stories they read
and the people they interact with, opinions and views are
reinforced in an echo chamber driven by positive feedback
loops. The truth more and more becomes my truth. Thus, the
social media Internet’s truth is rather popularity and truth
is my truth. These two tendencies both crave and fuel the
spread of fake news.
Brands and fake news Brands can interact both directly
and indirectly with fake news. In some instances, brands are
the victims of fake news and other times, the purveyors (see
Figure 1). Directly, brands can either finance fake news or
be the targets of it. Indirectly, they can be linked via image
transfer where either fake news contaminates brands, or
brands validate fake news.
Brands as victims of fake news As targets, brands can
be fake news casualties. Pepsi stock fell around 4% just
prior to the 2016 US presidential election when a fake news
Brands and Fake News / Vol. 10, No. 1, 2018 / GfK MIR

Brand Management, Brands as Processes,
Truthiness, Post-fact, Fake News
 
Pierre R. Berthon
Professor of Information Design and
Corporate Communication
McCallum Graduate School of Business,
Bentley University Waltham, MA.USA
pberthon@bentley.edu
Emi l y Tre e n
Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University,
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Leyland F. Pitt
Dennis F. Culver EMBA Alumni Chair of Business,
Beedie School of Business , Simon Fraser University,
Vancouver, BC, Canada
lpitt@sfu.ca
OPEN
doi 10.2478 / gfkmir-2018-0003
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story about Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, telling Trump support-
ers to “take their business elsewhere” went viral. Brands
can appear associated with spurious stories, and this can
tarnish or contaminate them, while lending validity to the
content. Consumers reading of an apparent affair between
Yoko Ono and Hillary Clinton might have been reassured of
the story’s validity because Fiat-Chrysler’s Ram Trucks brand
prominently sponsored the page. Brands also risk consumer
backlash if consumers interpret that brands support suspect
or misleading news. For instance, this was the case when Kel-
logg Co. was forced to pull its sponsorship of the “alternative
fact” site Breitbart.
Brands as purveyors of fake news Alternatively, brands
can propagate fake news. Searching for greater reach, brands
tend to associate themselves with the most popular stories
– whether these are true or fake. Ironically, brands may be
the primary force behind the fake news explosion: Fake news
attracts eyeballs, and eyeballs attract advertisers.
 :
Brand interactions with fake news
GfK MIR / Vol. 10, No. 1, 2018 / Brands and Fake News
Brands can also fund fake news sites. They fund them directly
by simply targeting popular sites, because web traffic attracts
advertisers. Also, they target sites based on the information
search profiles of likely customers, centered on the type of
content to which potential customers are attracted. In addi-
tion, they may fund them indirectly by tracking customers as
they surf from site to site.
Managing brands in a post-rational world By being
purveyors of truthiness (see Box 1), brands place themselves
at risk. However, the abundance of fake news and post-fact in
our post-rational era are even more powerful forces imperil-
ing brands. We propose two kinds of solutions for both
sources of risk: First, technical actions that can be undertaken
to address false news and, second, systemic steps that can be
undertaken to rethink the management of brands in order to
inoculate against various forms of “fakery” and to reestablish
stakeholder trust.
Direct Impact
Indirect Impact
Validate
Contaminate
ENABLE
TARGETS
FAKE NEWSBRANDS
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Technical actions to prevent brand damage Technical
solutions involve addressing each of the four types of rela-
tionships that brands have with fake news that are sum-
marized in Figure 1: enabling, validation, contamination and
targeting. Obviously, enabling (through funding), validation
and contamination are interrelated and are underpinned by
two issues. First, how to minimize the placement of brand
adverts adjacent to fake news stories and second, when such
pairings do occur, how to minimize the damage.
The minimization of pairing of brand advertisements and
fake news involves changing the ways in which marketers
target consumers. Ideally, algorithmically selected sites
should be screened by trained observers, just as Wikipedia
screens dubious content. In the longer term, humans can be
augmented by deep learning AI programs that have been
trained by humans to spot fake news stories. Alternatively, or
in addition, consumers themselves can be recruited to iden-
tify fake news and flag spurious content and the associated
web sites.
When brand advertisements do appear next to fake news
stories, remedies are twofold. First, consumers can be edu-
cated about fake news and the algorithmic targeting used
by advertisers, similar to the current efforts to educate
Brands and Fake News / Vol. 10, No. 1, 2018 / GfK MIR
MARKETERS’ COMPLICITY WITH A POSTFACT CULTURE
Are marketers part of the problem or simply victims of it? A cursory review of the origins of modern
marketing reveals that it developed, in part, when supply of low-cost, mass-produced products began
to outstrip demand. Advertisers were charged with persuading people to buy more goods and services.
Advertising products for their functionality – soaps that clean – shifted to advertising brands as “reality
creators,” be this a feeling, a lifestyle or even a world. Soaps “save the world,” and beverages bring “happi-
ness and peace.” Marketers have become some of the main cultural purveyors of truthiness and post-fact.
Another common marketing practice has been what is now called Betteridge’s Law: It states that when a
headline asks a question, it can mostly be answered with “no.” Formulated by the British journalist Ian
Betteridge, it proposes, that news outlets use headline questions for stories that do not possess sufficient
facts to support the “nut graph.” The same principle can be observed in advertising with questions like:
“Have you driven a Ford lately?” “Did someone say McDonalds?” “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Pou-
pon?” Most of the “probability-of-a-no answer” questions proffered above are posed by famous brand
slogans. By using such headlines, these brands try to make an impression that they cannot actually back
up. This practice shows how brands have always been purveyors of truthiness and post-fact.
{ Box 1}
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The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a name, term, design, symbol or other feature that
distinguishes an organization or product from its rivals in the eyes of the customer. We suggest instead that a
brand is a continually updated cognitive schema that invites the customer to experience an offering in a particular
way. It is constantly modified by the customer’s experience of the branded offering. Therefore, brands evolve as
a co-production of the company and the customer which form process partnerships.
The psychologist Ulric Neisser described a perceptual cycle, which suggests how the perception of an object, for
instance, a brand, evolves. While traditional theories present perception as a passive act Neisser describes percep-
tion as more an act of construction. Stimuli from the outside world are filtered and then either noticed, ignored
or processed further. The environment is actively scanned and sampled for specific information and modifies the
original “driving” schema (see Figure 2).
BRANDS AS PERCEPTUAL PROCESS: A NEW BRAND
CONCEPT FOR A POSTFACTUAL WORLD
{ Box 2 }
modifies samples
 :
Brand perception as active construction
ENVIRONMENT
COGNITIVE
SCHEMA
directs
(adapted from: U. Neisser, Cognitive Psychology: Classic Edition (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2014)
PERCEPTUAL
EXPLORATION
Brands can therefore be thought of as cognitive schema that select, drive and frame explorations of offerings.
BMW’s “the ultimate driving machine” focuses consumers’ perceptions on the driving experience. A customer
drives a BMW and “tests” the schema against the reality of the product experience. United Airlines’ recent forcible
removal of a passenger from a flight confirms many customers’ experience of the airline: Its branding as “fly the
friendly skies” fails the reality test.
BRAND
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Andrews, T. (2016):
“Kellogg, Citing ‘Values,’ Joins Growing List
of Companies That Pledged to Stop Advertising in
Breitbart New,”
Washington Post, November 30,
http://wapo.st/2gJ9cp5
Kirkpatrick, D. (2016):
Ad Placements on Fake News Sites
Continue to Befuddle Brands,”
Marketing Drive, (December, 9).
Murtha, J. (2015):
“Can You Really Tell an Entire Story in a Headline?”
Columbia Journalism Review,
(Sept – Oct, 6).
FURTHER READING
consum
ers about phishing scams. Second, consumer brand
advocates can be enlisted and enabled to alert managers when
a brand advert has been coupled with inappropriate content.
Systemic approaches to reduce fake-news risk Systemic
solutions involve a rethinking of brands and branding. It
means taking a good, long, hard look in the mirror and frankly
acknowledging that business has been complicit in creating
the post-rational culture we now inhabit (see Box 1). Too often,
brands have become ends in themselves, uncoupled from the
reality of the offerings they adorn. Toyota didn’t become one
of the biggest and most respected car companies by appealing
to magical thinking. It got there by making reliable cars. Tesla
did not come from nothing to be the largest maker of electric
cars in a mere four years by appealing to ecological thinking.
It got there by making electric cars outperform gas-powered
cars – although its ecological appeal obviously helped.
Brands are not ends in themselves; they are the result of
outstanding offerings. Certainly, they can act as interpretive
frames, but they don’t unilaterally create reality, as many
seem to believe. One way forward is to look at brands not as
objects but as processes – specifically, perceptual processes
(see Box2) – and manage them accordingly.
Recommendations for managing brands in a post-factual
world Our solution to the problem of minimizing the
brand risks posed by truthiness and post-fact is that managers
not view brands as “objects” but as “processes,” as outlined in
Box 2. Managers following this reasoning should consider the
following recommendations.
> Design all brand interactions carefully Brands frame
the way customers interact with offerings by highlighting
certain features while diminishing others. Managers must
think carefully about what their brands suggest, promise
and elicit.
> Consider the context of the interaction Perceptual
exploration is an active process. A customer’s experience
of the offering is directed by the schema they have of the
offering. Simply, no experience is independent of its context.
Apple understands that how and where customers interact
with their products is critical. Apple stores not only look and
feel different, mirroring the branding of “think different,”
they invite customers to interact with their products in a
relaxed environment, with help and advice available at a
moment’s notice.
> Apply reality-tests to your brand claims Any brand
experience must match the brand schema. If a company’s
offering fails its own brand reality test, the consequences
are negative. BP’s branding of ‘Beyond Petroleum’ was
meant to conjure images of a traditional oil company
exploring multiple other energy alternatives. The reality
was that BP was only expending a pittance of R&D fund-
ing on alternative energy sources. The Deepwater Horizon
event exacerbated public brand disillusionment by sug-
gesting that “Beyond Petroleum” meant denigrating the
environment in a cavalier manner.
> Expect consumers to participate in the creation of brand
meaning Finally, managers need to remember that
the perceptual cycle belongs to the consumer and not the
brand manager. The company may own the brand trade-
mark, but not the consumer’s brand schema.
.
Brands and Fake News / Vol. 10, No. 1, 2018 / GfK MIR
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Chapter
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Thesis
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