Hiding Something, Or the Appearance of It.

Some years ago, we entered an era of true transparency. As more and more people began living their lives on the Web, they became the proverbial open book.  And that led increasingly to demands for companies—and all brands really—to begin living more transparently, too.

You see evidence of it every day. Place a call to a corporate call center and those with nothing to hide will instruct their employees to answer the phone with this charming bit of disclosure: “Hello, this is Jill in Springfield, Illinois…” (Conclusion: at least that company didn’t outsource its call center!) Restaurants and packaged food labels increasingly disclose where food is sourced and to what degree that food is certified as one thing or another. (Conclusion: it’s locally-grown or organic or cage-free!) McDonald’s and others are disclosing the calories associated with their offerings. (Conclusion: it’s a guilty pleasure and I’m going to make my choices carefully!)

The list goes on. Which is why it was no surprise that Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, found himself in hot water all last week for failing to release tax returns covering more than the single year he’s already shared.

It’s reminiscent of the demands for President Obama’s birth certificate and his stubborn (if principled) refusal to provide it for the better part of two years before finally giving in. But while the demands for President Obama’s birth certificate were unprecedented, the demand for Governor Romney’s tax returns is not. Indeed, his own father provided a dozen years’ worth of tax returns in his campaign.

In this era of full transparency, when a person, a politician, a company – any brand, really – fail to disclose something, especially if that something is customarily disclosed, people assume the worst. It’s why President Obama finally caved—the whole thing had become a huge circus and a distraction and he was, in fact, hiding nothing.  So he disclosed and the issue went away (edge cases notwithstanding).

Folks from Romney’s own party are already surmising that he must have concluded the cost of not disclosing 10 years worth of taxes is actually smaller than the price he’d pay if everything came to light. So what’s the price of non-disclosure?

First, people will conclude that he’s got something hide. And since what he’s already disclosed includes things that people are typically suspicious of – like offshore accounts – folks are left to cook up all sorts of tax-evasion scenarios, many straight out of a John Grisham novel! And guess what? They’ll believe the stories they make up, and those will become the truth.

Second, polls show that people seem to genuinely like the President and his family (even if they’re not altogether happy with the results he’s produced while President). Those same polls say folks find Romney wooden and patrician (it calls to mind the problems Al Gore and John Kerry faced when running).  When you combine Romney’s patrician-ness with tales of complex offshore bank accounts, voters are bound to conclude: this guy so doesn’t get me.  

And finally, there’s the issue of trust. Whether your brand is Mitt Romney or McDonalds, if people lose trust in that brand the game is over. When you look like you’re hiding something – even if, really, truly, you’re not! – you can never recover from that.

McDonalds held its nose and put up the calories associated with its meals. President Obama put principle aside and produced his birth certificate. McDonalds is doing better than ever. And, so far at least, President Obama has slightly better than even odds of winning reelection.

Team Romney is learning a lesson that every brand has to learn sooner or later: we live in transparent world. He also may learn the hard way that failing the test of transparency has its consequences.

Author DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite. You can also check out his blog, Daily Casserole.


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