In the lead-up to our PSFK 2017 conference, we chat with speaker and Brandstream CEO Scott Bedbury to discuss what it means to run a business with integrity

As The New York Times famously put this year: the truth is more important now than ever before. With our political and cultural climate becoming increasingly clouded in a haze of “alternative facts,” one question for brands is how they define what the truth means for them. If the United Airlines deboarding debacle and ensuing social media fallout proved anything, it's how fragile trust is, and how toxic it can be when trust breaks. Can we really trust that a seat we paid for is actually ours?

When it comes to running a company with integrity, few are more experienced than Scott Bedbury, who lead Nike's ad department during the 1980's and 90's and oversaw the launch of “Just Do It.” One of the most successful ad campaigns of all time, it helped push Nike from a distant third to top of the heap among sneaker brands. Following a stint at Starbucks, Bedbury founded Brandstream, where he has worked with and advised leaders at companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, Coca-Cola, NASA, Samsung, and more. Chatting with PSFK, Bedbury discusses how transparency mattered at every stage of his career, from his years at Nike to Upstream, his environmental passion project.

What will you be talking about this year at PSFK?

I will speak to one of the most critical elements to any business, online or off, big or small, for-profit or not-for-profit: Trust.

No brand can survive very long without trust. We are witnessing a seismic collapse of trust in virtually every institution around us. Facts don’t seem to matter much anymore; even climate science is being disregarded as “politicized” by millions including our president and the head of the EPA. Sadly, we may be entering a “post-truth” era where fake news and alternative facts are given enough weight by a significant, slightly insane and reckless portion of the public that it competes with more disciplined and historically trusted sources. I am currently writing a book on transparency and the search for trust we will all face in the years ahead. It will be fun to share some of that and explain why we should all be at the edge of our seats and taking nothing for granted.

The world is a very different place from your days at Nike and Starbucks. Is that reflected in the marketing of today? Has the consumer of today changed at all?

Some things never change, like core human needs to feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself, for safety, to be rewarded, appreciated, loved, and feel empowered. Aside from that everything is constantly in flux—how we connect with each other, how we move, how we consume, how we live our lives—all of these are in a constant state of change. Since leaving Starbucks in 1998 I have consulted for a dozen startups including Airbnb and Casper, juggernauts like Samsung, massive healthcare companies, a Russian oligarch and our Defense Department. I see threads of change across all of them. In the end, it is not about marketing. It never really was for me. Building brand relevancy and enduring brand loyalty can be accomplished many different ways, not least of which is by treating your employees and the environment better than others do. It’s also about walking the walk. Today, if a company is out of touch it will be exposed in minutes rather than weeks or months. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad is a classic example of this. Pepsi deserved to be humiliated for what it tried to do there.

How can brands create meaning in people's lives aside from selling them more things? This seems to be a big trend in recent years, with companies more focused on pushing “experiences” that subliminally drive purchases, rather than more overt selling methods.

I like to think Nike never aggressively sold anything, at least not while I drove the advertising program in the 80’s and 90’s. We poked fun at marketing, at ourselves, at celebrities and at industries like sports marketing. We once did a commercial with Spike Lee and Michael Jordan where Spike looks into the camera and repeatedly asks Michael, standing behind him over his shoulder, if his success was the result of his shoes. MJ shakes his head ‘no' each time. At the end of the spot after the Jump Man Logo fades away, a statement fills the screen with, “The views of Michael Jordan do not necessarily reflect the views of Nike Inc.”

At Nike we tried to respect the intelligence of the public and promote things far more valuable than a pair of shoes, no matter how great the dynamic fit system or midsole cushioning. The Just Do It campaign, particularly the Women’s Empathy campaign written by Janet Champ at W-K, was essentially a self-empowerment message. Get off your butt. Have confidence in yourself. Dove knocked off the women’s messaging strategy 15 years later. Nike was years or decades ahead of most companies in turning down the sell and turning up deeper, more meaningful messages.

How would you steer United Airlines out of its current mess? Their jumbled response seems like a perfect example of what can happen when a brand isn't strong from within.

The first thing I would try to do would be to get the CEO to follow the lights to the nearest exit. This is just another example of transparency testing the integrity of an enterprise. For 20 years, since Nike’s sweatshop controversy, I have tried to prepare my clients for total transparency. PR problems are inevitable in a world turned buck-naked. Stress test your culture and your operational consistency. If you think for a moment you may not be who you say you are, or if you’re not sure if all your employees represent your brand well, do not pass go. Get your act together and prepare for judgment day. I am stunned by what United did. They should probably park their tagline for a while. They should also begin weeding out employees and processes that aren’t friendly if they stay with it. If they won’t change, then stop over promising and find different, perhaps easier territory to own. Maybe go with “We may suck but our planes are fast” for a while.

You have also worked quite a bit with Airbnb. What are they doing right?

I remain one of the biggest fans of Airbnb since I met Brian Chesky in December 2011 and began helping him. We applied some of the best brand development practices I knew in 2012 and 2013. By far the best client I have ever had. His recent commitments to support refugees and advocate for greater tolerance confirms what I saw when we first worked together. He may be the model CEO for the 21st century. Disruptive but compassionate, driven but fun, and quite certain he can make the world a better place if you’re up for the ride.

What ideas excite you these days?

I helped co-found a very disruptive company that leverages transparency for the greater good. Upstream Reports will change the way we all look at places. If we’re successful you may never buy a house, choose a school or a place of work again without pulling an Upstream Report first. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer that does not appear lifestyle or DNA-driven, you may want to look back at every place you’ve lived. Three decades of environmental toxicity data and disease rates for any address in the country. It launches on Earth Day. PSFK was given an early reveal a few months ago when Upstream was in beta.

Several things motivate us every day. The number one cause of death for children, after accidents, is now cancer. And for the most part, we have no idea why. We are living in an increasingly toxic world. We’re about to bring a lot of things into the light of day. Everyone in the country deserves to know what’s in the air they breathe, the water they drink and the soil under their feet. For those of you in New York, you will be pleased to know that the air is more toxic in places like West Seattle. New York and New Jersey have other problems. Check out our website to pull five free reports. With all due respect to sneakers, coffee or renting out your place, Upstream Research is the most purposeful and positive thing I have done other than raise two amazing kids. The stakes are very high. Frankly, they could not be higher with regard to environmental toxicity.

The theme of this year's conference is “Innovation on Purpose.” How do you find purpose in your work? How do you continue to innovate and push forward?

At the end of my first book, I was looking forward and trying to predict how technology, particularly the Internet, would impact business. It was published in 2002, a few years ahead of social media. One of my predictions was “the days of the corporate comb-over are numbered”, proof that Donald Trump never read my book (or any other). If you had a bald spot embrace it. Don’t be untrue. I was making the case to prepare for transparency. You could feel it coming. I also suggested that the Internet would prove to be God’s truth serum to business. Sadly, that has taken much longer than I had hoped. At first, it just helped remove some really bad dictators. Lately, it’s helped put a few in place. At that time I also wanted to say that the Internet had the potential to reveal the inner ass in all of us but my editor cut that. I plan to put that in the new book.

To learn even more valuable brand insights from Scott, get your tickets for this year's PSFK Conference, featuring illuminating visionaries and leaders speaking on subjects that matter. Get your tickets today before they sell out

As The New York Times famously put this year: the truth is more important now than ever before. With our political and cultural climate becoming increasingly clouded in a haze of “alternative facts,” one question for brands is how they define what the truth means for them. If the United Airlines deboarding debacle and ensuing social media fallout proved anything, it's how fragile trust is, and how toxic it can be when trust breaks. Can we really trust that a seat we paid for is actually ours?