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How we can learn from the authentic behaviour of dogs

July 31, 2012

I was at an RSPCA Summer Open Day a couple of weeks ago – well, the lure of a glass of home made lemonade and ginger cake for £1 on the chalked sign was too much to walk past, so I popped in out of the cold

My previous dog, a shaggy, doe-eyed bearded collie cross, was an RSPCA rescue dog, a more loving, loyal and hairy Wookie look-a-like hound you could not wish for, and I’ve been a sucker for supporting any dog sanctuary, stray or care charity ever since.

The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with her and not only will she not scold you, but she will make a fool of herself with you too. My current dog, Tess, a golden retriever, likes nothing more than a good play fight and cuddle, and next to my wife, she’s the best kisser ever. She’s also great at cleaning your ears. But let’s move on.

Dogs are miracles with paws, when they laugh they laugh with their tails, they share our lives in a way that most other animals can’t. Each evening Tess waits for me by the front door, face smiling, mouth open and tail wagging, ready to dote and barks for around twenty minutes to announce to the entire neighbourhood that I’m home from work.

Dogs’ lives are too short, their only fault really if you ignore the chewing of the occasional CD or loss of cakes from the carrier bag on the kitchen floor as you fetch the shopping in from Tesco. We all long for affection altogether ignorant of our faults, and we get such unconditional love from dogs that we take it for granted.

I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren’t certain we knew better.  They fight for honour and territory, make themselves heard without inhibition when they need to, and self-clean body parts with no moral restraint. You would think that for all their marvellous instincts that they appear to know nothing about numbers, but if you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Tess only two of them.

The most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog, happy to share the entire experience, but in order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi human.  The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming a dog. But enough about the dog, my reason for writing this blog was partly about the authentic behaviour of dogs, but really this blog came about because of a couple of books I bought at the RSPCA event.

Shouting out to me on the bookstall were two books by Dr. Harry Frankfurt – one On Truth, the other On Bullshit – two for £1 and my ace negotiating skills saw them tucked into my pocket and off home. One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit and lack of authenticity everywhere. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his or her share, but we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.

So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves, and we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, “we have no theory.”

Frankfurt, one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory. With a combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humour, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Frankfurt has also written a wonderful book on Truth, aptly titled On Truth. He makes a compelling case for truth, not on moral grounds but using pure business logic. His argument in simple terms is that there is a huge cost to lying and that is to remember all the details of the lie. The moment they forget the details of their lies and slip, they are exposed and that will cost them even more. So they continue to pay the costs of remembering all their lies.

Gritty stuff from an RSPCA bookstall, but set against the honesty and sincerity you get from your dog, the polarity of dog behaviours when compared to some humans led me onto thinking more about authenticity. If only brands were as authentic as dogs.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means brining the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in making a business case for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfil that.

Once you act this out, you need to remember this image for a long time, Because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me.

We trust most people to be generally honest. Effective communication is built on trust, but most advertising is the opposite of authentic communication. You never see an ad that says ‘Our product is pretty decent, but overpriced!’ The sad part is that we all know it, and yet we choose to play along.

I’m away on holiday at present, at a beach & villa resort, and this lack of authenticity has quickly set the tone for my daily interactions with most of the resort staff. After a week of missing authentic communication with my dog, this a new theme that is becoming the cornerstone of everything I do. It all started with noticing how I greeted and responded to the resort staff.

It usually went something like this: Hey, how are you today. Good, you? Good. Alright, see ya later. Not only did I not really care about how the person was doing, I also played along with his fake enthusiasm, but it wasn’t just me! When other staff ask me How are you doing? they kept walking without waiting for an answer. How are you doing? has become the new Hi. Most people don’t really want to know, nor do they really mean it.

The idea is that we are interacting daily on a superficial level, but very few of us want to snap out of it and have a genuine conversation. Naturally, talking about authenticity made me hyper-aware of my own patterns and non-genuine conversations, and I tried to stay true and present at all times, even if it made for awkward situations. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face to face conversation.

Everyone is banging on about customer experience, customer engagement and customer loyalty, but the latest I reckon is customer romance. I say this as I was lashing on the Aloe Vera gel to my sunburned shoulders, the Holland & Barrett gel for bio active skin treatment was just the job, but the subtle we’re good for you struck me as an example of authentic branding.

Maybe an unfashionable brand, but a visit to their web site gave me ideas around customer romance as a strategy, the authenticity of their style of communication is contagious, and there’s no better way to connect with a customer than to be sincere, transparent and honest. We need authenticity now more than ever.

Compare this to a fitness video advertisement on American TV that is broadcast here: Here is a revolutionary fitness idea. Spend only seven minutes everyday and make a huge difference in your lives. Call in the next 30 minutes and we will send you two more minutes of video for FREE!

‘Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being an original doesn’t mean your brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best. When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with actual customer experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.

I’ve always admired BMW’s claim of being the ultimate driving machine,  which is constantly reinforced by the automotive press in head-to-head comparisons with Audi and Mercedes. According to those authoritative sources, it’s not a bullshit line. Which really is the bottom line on brand authenticity. Don’t BS people.

It’s a long way from the RSPCA, dogs, Harry Frankfurt, holiday resort staff, Holland & Barrett and a US get-fit TV commercial, but with time to think on holiday, business life is all about truth, no bullshit, and authenticity.  Lack of authenticity has a big price associated with it, when people observe the void they run away. It will never turn into a customer service issue. They just won’t become your customers. So, be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home: If it’s not the truth, it must be bullshit.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    July 31, 2012 9:52 pm

    Great blog, we’re considering a dog for the family but with 2 tricky children?

    We’re in Portugal for 3 weeks house and dog sitting!

    I’m sure you’re not in Corfu, where ever you are enjoy!

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