In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau put forward his treatise "The Social Contract," which describes how civil society organizes and governs itself. Basically, in order for us to distinguish ourselves as human beings (as opposed to animals), we enter into a social contract with others. In this social contract, everyone will be free because all forfeit the same amount of freedom and impose the same duties on all.
Similarly, when we join a company, we agree to submit to the corporate rules while at work or actively representing the company. In return, we get a salary and benefits.
Companies enforce this social contract in myraid ways. In order to make sure that everybody pulls in the right direction and nobody falls out of line, corporations rely on intricate systems based on compliance. People have to comply with everything from employee manuals, employment contracts, company policy, style guides, brand books and stated best practices. Processes and roles are strictly defined, employees are expected to perform according to given guidelines, even if the most unforeseen catastrophe strikes. There is always a script, usually called a contingency plan. Every quarter year or so, we get evaluated on how well we have complied with corporate ideals.
So, what does any of this have to do with marketing?
Well, reliance on compliance as a means of governing an organization means that all marketing and communications activities in turn have to abide by strict processes and pre-defined messages. Traditionally, a company's communications policy has been formulated to comply with a given brand platform with its stylistic directives as well as legal guidelines. New campaigns have to adhere to the style sheet, color schemes and typographic choices. Then, everything has to pass through the legal department to make sure it's legally kosher and all the TMs are in place.
The compliance approach to marketing works as long as the marketer is in control of the message. But as we all know, those happy days are now history. In today's transparent world, the internet not only functions as a megaphone for competitors and consumers, but also works as a spotlight, ready to shine a light on all your wrinkles and closeted skeletons. Consumers own your brand message, and information travels instantaneously when you least want it to. Just take a look at The Consumerist, where brands are being torn to shreds daily.
Moving from compliance to trust
If we want to engage in successful marketing communications, we need to stop thinking in terms of compliance and start thinking in terms of trust. If you think about it, compliance is actually a way of avoiding trust: "I don't trust that you are capable of doing your job properly, therefore I will give you a checklist of action items."
But how do we make this shift? Can we engineer trust? Yes, we can. In order to create a culture of trust in which marketers function as true communicators behind a brand, companies have to make some radical changes that go beyond marketing to the core of corporate identity. Below are two giant steps that I believe every company needs to take in order to enable a culture of trust, internally and externally:
First, become transparent. Companies should strive to open up their organizations to such an extent that there really isn't any information to hide. Information is only powerful if it's not fully disclosed, so why risk having that power used against you when you can simply eliminate the risk? The open source movement is an excellent example of how open practices can be successful.
Second, create frameworks -- not rule books. Employees, vendors and marketing agencies have to be trusted and empowered to react and deal with situations by applying their own expertise. Instead of instructing how things should be done, state what needs to be done. People are fully capable of responsibly figuring out the "how" by themselves. Brand platforms and corporate policies have to be malleable enough to function in any given situation. A product recall can no longer be handled according to standard practices of putting out a press release full of legalese and activating dusty contingency plans. Instead, crises should be dealt with by authentically communicating trust in the consumers' own channels through responsive, non-scripted communications.
So does this mean that compliance has no place in business? No. Obviously if you have a product recall, you still have to comply with whatever the Consumer Product Safety Commission tells you to do (including putting out a press release full of legalese). Compliance has its legitimate functions and obviously cannot be discarded completely. But if we as marketers are going to adapt to the pressures of today's media landscape and consumer culture, we need to go beyond compliance and start enabling real trust, starting from the inside.