Consumers need more opacity, not transparency
‘Rather than relying on a passive process of opening up and removing barriers to information, we need brands to be actively creating it, in a clear, concise and accessible form, that spells things out in black and white’
Transparency is about opening up organisations, removing the barriers to information and giving us access to the story behind the products that we consume. This process facilitates more informed decisions and empowers the more ethically minded consumer, giving us more control over what we purchase and where our money goes.
In a recent survey by Trace One surrounding food products, 91% of respondents said that it was “important to them that they know where their food comes from”. When asked if they did, only 13 percent of participants actually considered themselves to be “very knowledgeable”. This is just one of many studies suggesting that consumers are increasingly demanding more information about the products that they buy.
However, this desire for more information does not necessarily equate to a desire for more transparency. Not as we know it anyway. Academic Sherry Turkle explores a different conception of transparency that has emerged, drawing on the example of IBM and Apple Macintosh home computers. She argues that during the early 80s, when computer users spoke of transparency, they were referring to machines like an IBM, where you could ‘open the hood and poke around’, easily making modifications to the hardware and software of the device. Macs on the other hand were seen as less transparent, encouraging users to stay at the surface level of the software, offering little access to the inner working of the machine and imposing greater restrictions on changes that a user could make.
By the mid 80s, however, Mac users began to use transparency in reference to the ‘intuitive interfaces and applications that made understanding how to make the machine work in a useful way much more accessible’. This was somewhat paradoxically, a kind of transparency enabled not by openness, but by streamlining a users experience. Turkle argues that there has been a wider shift in definition towards this more abstract mode of transparency, arguing that ‘Now when people say something is transparent, they mean they can easily see how to make it work. They don’t mean they know why it is working’.
So, let’s go back to brands. If we think of making ‘it work’ as being able to make more informed decisions, giving us more control over what we purchase and where our money goes, removing the barriers to information alone would not necessarily help us do this. Simply having access to information does not make that information accessible. And, even if we were able to comprehend the massive amounts of information available to us, could we really find the time to process it all to any extent that could meaningfully inform the thousands of decisions that we make as consumers throughout our life time? And so, even in an unprecedented age of transparency, as John Elkington argues, we find ourselves ‘information-rich but knowledge poor’.
So what do we need from brands then?
Well, we need opacity.
Rather than relying on a passive process of opening up and removing barriers to information, we need brands to be actively creating it, in a clear, concise and accessible form, that spells things out in black and white. We need brands to operate as the intuitive interfaces that allow consumers to navigate the consumer landscape, making reasonably informed decisions about what they are purchasing and where their money goes.
This is not to say that transparency is not crucial.There will always be demand from the public for organisations to be more transparent and there will always be other organisations ensuring that they are. But the point is that this process alone can not meaningfully inform consumers and the brands that we see doing great things with transparency, are actually doing great things with opacity: with actively creating clear, concise and consumable information.
Consumers need more opacity, not transparency.
TRACE ONE RESEARCH (2015) US And UK Consumer Buying Behaviours And Perceptions Of Food Safety And Quality
Turkle, S. (1996). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Chapter 1, pp. 29-49.
Elkington, J. 1999: Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, Capstone Press: Minnesota