Brands and Trust in the age of the Ethical Consumer

31 May 2008|Added Value

If asked who or what they trust, most people would put members of their family at the top of their list. Even if such trust might often be qualified in some way, when it comes to the big things in life, the people closest to you are the ones you can count on.

There’s an important lesson here for brand owners. Trust is not created by strident advertising claims, but by the delivery of consistent and positive brand experiences, time after time after time. The memories of all these positive experiences combine to create an expectation that the next time is going to be equally good – and whether you make cars or candy bars, that instinctive confidence is critical if you want consumers to choose your brand over an alternative.

The bad news, of course, is that a negative experience can undermine years of patient brand-building, particularly if it undermines the core brand promise. Time will tell how much damage was done to the British Airways brand by the calamitous opening of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 in the UK, which affected not only those customers who experienced the problems personally, but all those who saw the media reports.

The issue is not limited to high profile disasters; brands are being damaged every day by much more individual moments of disappointment – the delivery not made when it was promised, the long wait on-hold to a call centre, and so on.

Admittedly, small faults may be forgiven; for example, drivers of classic Italian sports cars will laugh about the impossibility of getting into a comfortable driving position – but remain completely devoted to their chosen marque nonetheless.

But examples like this are very much the exception rather than the rule, and – at the other extreme – problems which are seen not as honest errors but deliberate breaches of confidence are unlikely to be forgiven. Here, there has always been a tension – particularly for public companies – between the desire to build long term customer relationships, and the pressure for short-term profit. Take Banks as an example. Changes in interest rates are almost universally regarded by Retail Banks as an opportunity to make additional profits (increases in rates being routinely passed on to borrowers much more quickly than they are to savers). Whilst customers have grown wearily accustomed to this, such practices go a long way to explaining why the financial services industry rates pretty poorly when it comes to indices of consumer trust.

So far, all this is pretty familiar stuff to marketers, although whether they have the influence within their organisation to ensure every customer touch-point is managed as they would want is another point entirely. However, two things have happened in recent times which make the challenge of building consumer trust even more formidable than it has traditionally been.

Firstly, the internet has created a world where knowledge and opinions are much more readily exchanged than any of us could have imagined twenty years ago. Google any brand name coupled with the word “complaint” and it is instantly apparent that it’s impossible for brands to manage everything that’s said about them. You don’t need to dig much deeper to find examples of consumers applying a good deal of creativity to get their message across, and reaching a broader audience as a result. For example, a complaint about the US-based video and broadband provider, Comcast, has been turned into a really entertaining video posted on YouTube. This film has been viewed over 1.2 million times – and there’s nothing the brand can do about it but grit their teeth and try and do better in the future.

The corollary of all this is that it is much clearer than ever before that consumers are very sceptical about claims made for itself by a brand, and much more influenced by the opinions of others – in particular, friends and fellow members of the on-line communities. Brand owners are no longer in control, and need to get used to that idea.

The second, more recent, phenomenon has been the rapid rise in consumer expectations of brands when it comes to their sustainable behaviour. This is a multi-dimensional issue, encompassing a range of environmental, social, and public health topics and has moved at lightning speed to become a mainstream consumer concern.

When making brand choices, consumers aren’t prepared to trade-off functional benefits; a soap powder which doesn’t get the clothes clean is no good no matter how environmentally friendly it is. They’re also reluctant to pay a price premium, reasoning that big businesses have a responsibility to behave sustainably without calling on their customers to pay for the privilege.

In this environment, behaving in a way which commands respect and confidence is more important for brands than it has ever been. As ethical and environmental factors weigh more and more heavily in the choices consumers make, it is becoming more and more fashionable to make extravagant claims; green has become the new black, so to speak.

But – and this is a big but – any brand making claims about its environmental credentials, or the ethical standards it applies in its treatment of its suppliers, had better be prepared for close and challenging scrutiny, and for an onslaught of moral outrage if consumers discover they are guilty of over-claim or “greenwash”.

In the end, we’re back to where I started. We trust our families because we’re close to them; they share our values; they have our interests at heart; and we know them well enough to be confident they aren’t harbouring dark secrets. Achieving that level of confidence and intimacy is a daunting challenge for brands – but there are three golden rules for marketers here.

First, understand the issues that matter most to your consumers. If you sell soft drinks, one of the issues to tackle first will be making sure your packaging can be re-cycled.

Second, tackle the responsible agenda seriously. It is critical today, and is only going to become more so.

Third, deliver more than you promise. That way, there’s no danger of being found out and you may have a fighting chance that word of mouth will become your friend rather than an enemy.

Leslie Pascaud,
Director, Responsible Marketing Practice
Added Value Europe

Originally written for the Encyclopedia of Brands & Branding

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