Human beings rarely say exactly what they mean. One of the unspoken rules of being English, as identified by anthropologist Kate Fox, is the 'rule of not being earnest'. The English are constitutionally uncomfortable with too direct an assertion. This is why we love and use irony.
But even our more direct American cousins never say exactly what they mean. No one does. There are so many social and contextual determinants that impact the words we use. What we say, moreover, is accompanied by all kinds of secondary communication which can change its meaning. Irony is an obvious example where the secondary communication completely subverts the nominal meaning. When meta-communication isn't correctly parsed, you get the confusion that sometimes happens to English people in the US. (Or vice versa.)
These secondary communications are called meta-communication and they are an essential part of human interactions. They may be congruent with, or contradictory of, the content. What does a brand's meta-communication say and how does it impact the messages and content so lovingly crafted by its agencies?
The most obvious issues arise because of dissonance. A brand says one thing and then acts in a way that contravenes that. Advertising tends to put the best face it can on a company's offering, but anyone who has spent any time on hold with a customer service representative knows there's often a disconnect, which can impact how the communication is then processed. This is why loyalty ad campaigns don't work.
I worked on a mobile network loyalty campaign, based on the evergreen insight that keeping customers is significantly cheaper than continually acquiring new ones. The campaign detailed all the wonderful things the network did for its customers and let everyone else 'overhear' it in broadcast media. It didn't work. In tracking studies, we saw that the campaign increased metrics on 'how well the network treated its customers' for everyone except current customers. In fact, the brand measures for customers declined because of the loyalty advertising. Why? Because customers had direct experiences that contradicted the claims the ads were making.
How companies behave is increasingly an important communication consideration – one that can directly impact how the outputs of the more discrete 'communication' are understood. Edelman's 2015 Trust Barometer shows that trust in businesses has declined sharply in recent years, which impacts how ads are processed. Social media creates a semi-permeable membrane between the humans inside the body corporate and the humans outside. Brand impressions are supplemented by brand expressions, as people share their experiences of a company and their point of view. In his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff, the media theorist, suggests this means we need to abandon comms completely: "As strange and naive as it may sound, this means abandoning communications as some separate task, and instead just doing all the right things that you want talked about."
I think there's another way. Let's return to how humans communicate. We communicate socially in a couple of very distinct ways. First, we share. We use content to communicate our beliefs and values, hopefully adding value to the stream by acting like a signal in the noise. Second, we report. Both of which seem interesting and relevant for brands looking at the prospect of generating new content every day from now on. Sharing a stream of relevance helps brands become signals rather than just adding to the noise.
Actions can create some of the most compelling content. Consider the Red Bull Stratos project. It's not a content idea, but it generated reams of it, and by doing something very difficult and succeeding, it showed that Red Bull Gives You Wings. It's an action, distinct from the normal operations of the company, that communicates.
As humans we evolved the ability to spot liars early on, for survival purposes. When words and actions diverge, we believe actions because they 'speak louder'. Instead of saying they spread happiness, Coca-Cola created a series of videos showing them do it. Aviva in Canada is running the #FeedtheDeed challenge to encourage random acts of kindness. So perhaps the future of branded content is doing nice things for real people in the world and sharing it. We can but hope.