When I was 15, I took a course called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, which was intended to help the participants build capacity to think about some important questions about our identity and purpose. There was one sentence that really stuck out to me at the time, and still does:
“Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues.”
I love this idea of a foundation on which other character qualities are built. If you act in a way that only seems loving, just, or creative, but are doing so on a way that isn’t built on truth, you’re not a loving (or just, or creative) person, you’re just a good actor. While there’s something to be said for “fake it ’till you make it” when it comes to being a better person, the desire still has to be true.
Truthfulness and marketing.
This could turn into a huge philosophical discussion. (It certainly did for our group.)
But—to get to the point—the idea of truthfulness as a foundation has shifted how I see my work. When I tell people that I write marketing materials, I often get jokes about how I must be a really good liar. For many people, marketing = propaganda = lies. This is absolutely a big (and problematic) part of our economic landscape, but it’s not the way I want to do business. As far as I’m concerned, the best marketing is also built on a foundation of truthfulness.
There are people with needs and wants. There are people with goods and services. But the folks who are looking aren’t necessarily very good at looking, and the people with stuff aren’t always very good at describing or explaining it. My job is to help bridge the gap. When it works, someone’s world gets a tiny bit better, and I love that.
But this only works when I’m being honest. If I promise a customer the world and they get a photograph of a globe, nobody’s helped over the long term. The customer is frustrated, the seller gets a bad reputation, and everybody’s cynicism is kicked up another notch. What kind of goal is that?
Strong foundations build solid boundaries.
Truthfulness is the reason for most of the boundaries I set for myself in my business:
- I choose not to make claims (especially health claims) that are actively contradicted by science.
- I choose not to write papers for students.
- I choose not to link to websites that seem to take glee in throwing truthfulness to the wind.
- I choose not to take jobs that I don’t believe I can do well.
I believe that both my business and my life are better because my boundaries are not arbitrary, but connected to an underlying principle.
Marketing as love.
Marketing can be an expression of love for the things we create and the services we offer. If you love something, share it! Take a photo. Show it to everyone. Talk about its amazing features. Explain how improved your life.
But just as with love for people, the whole process of expressing love becomes hollow when the underlying truth isn’t there. This is how we end up awash in a sea of staged before-and-afters, clickbait titles, invented problems, and harmful “cures.”
Yes, consistent branding is important. Calls to action matter. Good titles get attention. All those books you’ve read about marketing techniques? It’s mostly good stuff.
But more than this, we need to build trust between our businesses and our customers.
Do I think this will solve the world’s problems? Do I think it will make you rich overnight?
But I do believe it’s the truth.