GM food row boils down to key question of trust

As they watched the genetically modified foods fiasco unfold, how many business leaders looked up at Monsanto and thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’? And how many risk ending up in a similar position in the future? Quite a few, perhaps, unless they recognise that this affair is a symptom of a deeper sea-change in public attitudes.

Never mind the details of who said what or who did what, the rumpus demonstrates what happens when traditional sources of authority and trust collapse with nothing to fill the vacuum. Faced with a controversy such as GM foods (or nuclear power, or BSE, or virtually anything else you care to think of) the instinctive reaction of all involved – corporate executives, scientists, governments, pressure groups, consumers – is to reach for the facts. The common assumption, as tv series The X-Files puts it, is that: “The truth is out there.” But as we (the public) are learning through bitter experience, along with agents Mulder and Scully, the facts are forever elusive.

We have learned, for example, that no one, not even the most expert of experts, has perfect knowledge. There can be, and often are, unexpected and unintended outcomes. So there is always room for doubt.

We have also learned that experts often disagree among themselves. This is a good thing because it is how science and knowledge advance, but it also means that at any one point there is no arbiter of truth; no single person or group to trust.

We have learned that a dangerous falsehood can be successfully paraded as fact, if only temporarily. As Jonathan Swift wrote in his marvellous essay The Art of Political Lying, “Truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late.”

We have learned that in most important things truth is not black and white, but grey – dealing with judgments about a spectrum of possibilities and probabilities of risk. And different people make different judgments about the self-same risks.

We have also learned that facts are not the be all and end all. Even if Greenpeace and Monsanto could agree on the facts (which they can’t), they would still draw different policy conclusions, because each side is using the facts to support an ideology. One is there to protect nature. The other is there to promote commerce. And these objectives rarely coincide.

Finally, and most crucially, we have learned that if we put all these lessons together there cannot be an honest broker rising above the melee of opinion, ideology and interest to take a balanced, objective view. After all, the facts the honest broker relies upon are, in the end, no better than anyone else’s.

So, deep inside we feel gnawing, debilitating, confusing waves of doubt. Where once we saw science and the facts as the final arbiter – as a new God – today, we have learned to become agnostic, if not atheist.

But in a world where you cannot trust the facts any longer, what or who can you trust? The only thing we – the public, consumers – have left is people: their integrity, their motives, and our knowledge of their vested interests. When all else fails, the people we trust are the people who are honest and on our side. Such people may make mistakes. But if they are truly honest and on our side, then they won’t be economical with the truth. And if they have made a mistake they’ll come clean about it.

That’s the marketing lesson of the GM affair. The really important trust-building truths aren’t out there, waiting to be discovered. They’re in you, waiting to be nurtured. As Financial Times writer Philip Stephens commented recently, the Frankenstein ingredient isn’t in the food it’s in people – “it’s called mistrust”. And this is where Monsanto and most other capitalist corporations come unstuck: the trust-building human qualities consumers are crying out for are at odds with the traditional description of companies as coldly calculating, instrumental machines for the maximisation of shareholder value.

By definition, if such an entity is on any body’s side it’s on the shareholder’s side, not mine. Which means it has lost the who-do-I-trust? race before it starts. As Stephens wrote: “These giant multinationals now speak as if their mission is to save humanity, to put food in the mouths of the starving and medicine within reach of the sick. Baloney. Monsanto, a company that has spent many, many millions promoting its image as a guardian of the planet, has one ambition: to create value for its shareholders. There is nothing wrong with that… but these corporations should not expect the rest of us to be conned by their synthetic altruism.”

The implications are truly and deeply unsettling for any boardroom because they strike at the heart of what business is for. They also transform the nature of branding. The traditional heartland of brand trust is summed up by that Ronseal ad, ‘It does what it says on the tin.’ No offence to Ronseal, but Ronseal-style brand management isn’t good enough any more. The focus of brand trust is shifting away from the product to the people behind the product. It comes down to what the Victorians used to call character.

Character stands the test of time and circumstance. Those who demonstrate their integrity through thick and thin, through times of popularity and unpopularity, emerge with a good reputation. And they defend that reputation at all costs, because everything else rests upon it.

This is what the explosion of corporate interest in issues such as corporate culture, visions, missions, values, corporate ethics, and social responsibility is all about. What they fumblingly add up to is a struggle to survive in a goldfish-bowl world of increasing transparency where trust in you, the company, is becoming more important than Ronseal-style trust in the products you put out there. This is the emerging test of successful corporate brand management.

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