You Should Fear Transparency (But Not for the Reasons You Think)

Transparency is the new black

At Expo West this year, I ran into friend and client Ric Scalzo, the Founder and CEO of Gaia Herbs. During our conversation, we mused over the growing natural products industry interest in transparency: what it means, who is doing it, how to do it and — most strikingly — how the level of interest doesn’t seem to match the current level of execution. Is all the buzz surrounding transparency watering it down into just a clever marketing term? Of all the folks I could have posed this conundrum to, Ric was one of the most fitting. Let me tell you a little about Gaia Herbs.

When Gaia came to us a few years ago looking for help transforming their business, they were already well ahead of the curve on things that other companies are just now recognizing as essential to their success. Gaia diligently collected (and continues to collect) data on every aspect of their growing, sourcing and manufacturing process — literally from seed to shelf. Now, if that sounds familiar to you, it’s because we helped them turn that vast pile of information into the foundation of their brand story, and the outward facing “Meet Your Herbs” traceability platform. For Gaia, transparency is traceability. For you, it may mean something else, and that’s okay. Transparency isn’t a one-size fits all solution — it’s a flexible and honest style of communication that forms relationships built on trust.

Ric and I looked at one another in bemused silence. Why hasn’t every dietary supplement company adopted the high level of transparency that Gaia has? That’s when the lightbulb went off for me: being transparent means being vulnerable, and that can be terrifying.

A transparent company is completely accessible to its customers.

A transparent company is completely accessible to its customers. They admit their challenges and explain their decisions. They fling open their factory doors to physical and virtual tours and they are honest about their sourcing and production processes. A transparent company invites scrutiny and accepts loyalty; there is as much pressure in admitting your mistakes as there is in accepting praise for your successes.

Another client, Robert Craven, CEO of FoodState, said something in his “Big T” announcement at the 2015 NBJ Summit that’s stuck with me:

“You can’t fake your way into trust.”

And he’s right. To build trust, you must engage in genuine relationships with your customers — relationships built on open, honest, two way communication.

I think both Ric and Robert would agree with me when I tell you this next bit: your fear is normal, but you must be strong and embrace your fear. That vulnerability is an invitation to your customers to connect with you in a fundamentally human way. Make the invitation and you open yourself up to a rich, lasting relationship with your customers that is as natural as your products are. When Gaia Herbs embraced transparency, they saw their sales triple in four years with no new product launches, and become the herbal medicine leader that they deserved to be.

Transparency isn’t a lightswitch

If you’re feeling inspired right now, we may be wearing the same shoes. The sheer power of being a transparent company often leaves me with goosebumps. Robert said something else that really resonated with me: “Be bold. Don’t hold back.” It was advice from his father and it’s advice I’d like to pass on to you. So many companies have adopted an insincere approach to being transparent — simply announcing to the world that they are being transparent while tossing their annual reports on the internet — but they are missing the point and the real opportunity. Transparency isn’t an announcement, it’s a conversation. You should come to this conversation with the normal, healthy trepidation one feels before attempting something great or tackling a challenge, instead of the traditional corporate fear of having your secrets exposed.

Think outside your boardroom and ask yourself: what do my customers want to know? What keeps them up at night? Then ask yourself how vulnerable you’re willing to be. I think you’ll find that the intersection of those two things will be where your transparency journey naturally begins.

Download our Traceability white paper to get inspired to begin your own transparency journey.