For modern marketers, there’s no such thing as “too much information”

There was a time when sharing private details in a business context was taboo. But a new breed of entrepreneurs are making bank by baring all

CEO baring (nearly) all, then covered in money

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

Brennen Belich knew he had a problem, and his inability to solve it was driving him nuts. Working in Vancouver as a digital media consultant, the twentysomething was struggling with an issue that many men face (one in three, to be exact): premature ejaculation. Unhappy with his doctor’s advice to consult a sex therapist or take antidepressants to diminish sensitivity, Belich set out to design his own solution. Today, he is the founder of the Premature Ejaculation App (PEA), which coaches men through training exercises designed to maintain mid-stage arousal for longer.

In hawking his app, Belich has been extremely open about his personal struggles, talking to reporters from coast to coast about his bedroom frustrations. “My goal wasn’t to be the face of premature ejaculation,” he admits, sheepishly. “But I think it really helps to have a relatable person as the face of the app, talking about how they experienced the problem.” A few weeks after its release, the app had been downloaded more than 3,000 times.

The lesson to be learned from Belich’s candidness? “There’s value to being authentic, and, well, really honest,” he says. There was a time when baring it all was utterly taboo in business. And while the concept of the frank personal testimonial as a marketing tool isn’t necessarily new—the old Hair Club for Men commercials from the ’80s come to mind—in the age of the social media “overshare,” it’s undergoing a renaissance. (Already seen a dozen snaps of your pal’s baby throwing up this morning? You can probably handle a guy’s premature ejaculation woes.) In fact, for many of today’s consumers, especially media-savvy millennials who are skeptical of spin, honest stories from the real humans behind brands are refreshing.

Perhaps the most notable recent iteration of this phenomenon has come from Thinx, whose 2015 ads for “period-proof underwear” (featuring pictures of runny eggs, among other evocative images) raised many eyebrows. The company—started by Canadian Miki Agrawal and her twin sister, Radha—has gained a cult following for its blog posts, in which Thinx staffers share personal stories on topics that might seem totally TMI. A sample recent entry, called “A Guide to Period Sex and Why You Should Do It (Literally),” elicited such effusive comments as “So true!!!” “Brilliant!” and “Thank you for making this article funny.”

Lisa Shepherd, CEO of Toronto marketing firm The Mezzanine Group, says that when a spokesperson—or, even better, a founder—can share personal experiences with the product that’s on offer, it creates immediate credibility. “They have this incredible insight into the problem at hand,” she says, which makes them appear less like a shill. “It’s creates not just the perception of honesty, but that the speaker has a true understanding of what customers had been missing.”

Research bears this out: A recent Harvard Business School study found consumers are more inclined to like people (and, by extension, businesses) they perceive to be telling the no-guff truth. “It signals trustworthiness,” wrote study author Leslie John, which “seems to have a positive ‘halo’ effect.”

For those looking to use candour in their own marketing, experts note that this isn’t something that can be fabricated (i.e., no lies), nor tempered (i.e., no censorship). And the more gnarly details, the better. “It can be a little awkward, or nerve-racking,” admits Belich. “But it’s worth it.”

He’s seeing how. These days, Belich is flooded with emails from PEA faithfuls looking for confirmation that they’re on the right path, or simply to commiserate. “I think a lot of people are just happy to know that they’re not the only ones with the problem,” he says.