In a world where we are punishing politicians, publishers and sportspeople for various lapses of judgment, you know there’s a collective shift in expectations of institutions – and that includes brands. After all, today’s all-powerful consumers are ready to boycott brands they don’t trust.

Gone are the days of a food or fashion manufacturer bleating about how great they are and expecting us to believe it; there’s just too much information too readily available to all of us. There’s no running, no hiding; the only way is to ’fess up.

Admitting to brand mistakes is appealing

Brands that get it wrong are stepping out the wings and sharing their shame – and laughing at themselves. When Lynx was pushed into removing what many deemed a sexually offensive online ad, they swiftly posted a follow-up ad featuring the model Lucy sadly handing back the props that were used in the original execution.

Last year, Innocent emailed customers a money-off voucher that had an incorrect barcode; the follow-up apology email they sent out suggested that their customers ‘keep [the old voucher] as a memento of our stupidity.’

And when an American Red Cross employee tweeted that they were planning to get totally hammered (or ‘slizzered’) from the corporate Twitter account instead of their personal one, the company deleted the tweet and posted “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” It turned into an overnight viral hit, with readers pledging donations because of their understanding stance.

Don’t stifle the customer’s voice

Negative customer feedback can easily be hidden, but a site that gives just rave reviews is now seen as suspect; to address and act upon complaints is far more effective. So when Virgin America upgraded their reservation system, customers were frustrated by the difficulties and complained en masse; Virgin didn’t delete them, but replied to the 12,000 comments individually, winning loyalty and a lot of positive feedback. After complaints about quality, Domino’s Pizza launched a month-long campaign in New York’s Times Square, where a digital hoarding communicated live-streamed both good and bad customer feed-back from Twitter. A bold move by any standard.

For some brands, even being actively disliked becomes something to not just acknowledge but celebrate as a point of difference. Marmite and Miracle Whip are both playing on the idea that people are divided between lovers and haters. So Marmite asked online consumers what their stance was under the slogan ‘Love it or Hate it’, and opened up a Facebook page that encouraged both praise and abuse.

Real models add authenticity to a brand

Many fashion and cosmetics brands are finding it difficult to adapt to the new drive for honesty – after all, they’re selling themselves on the basis that everyone wants to look attractive. While M&S’s oversized model campaign of 2000 was too far ahead of its time, Dove picked up the baton and began using real people and not models in their campaigns; French cosmetic brand Make Up Forever has taken it even further, refusing to use retouched images in advertising, and basing their entire brand proposition on it.

Dove use real people, with real body shapes and sizes for their advertising

And finally, the ultimate in branding trust: Honest Tea set up unmanned pop-up kiosks in six US cities, asking people to leave $1 for each bottle of the product they took. The social experiment was filmed on hidden cameras and streamed live to demonstrate honesty in action.

A brave move, but one totally in tune with the zeitgeist.