How brands touch the parts others can’t reach

This one has legs, so let it run. Responding to my article about the GM foods crisis (MW March 4) Ronseal marketing director Ged Shields argues that I am “completely wrong” to suggest that the focus of consumer trust is shifting from trust in the product to trust in the people behind the product.

Stung by my comment that Ronseal-style brand management – “does exactly what it says on the tin” – is no longer good enough, Shields responds that: “As long as consumers’ experience of Ronseal products matches their expectations, their trust will grow and the brand should prosper. The focus of brand trust will only shift away from the product to the people behind the product, if the product fails to deliver a promise. This is the real lesson of the genetically modified food fiasco – products must deliver what is expected by consumers.”

It’s a fair cop. Shields is right. Well, we’re both right, because we are talking about two very different models of branding – the traditional model of branding, which is good for packaged goods brands such as Ronseal, and an emerging new model whose characteristics we are still struggling to understand.

An awful lot rests on marketers’ ability to discover each model’s key drivers, and one critical distinction seems to be the level and type of trust they need in order to prosper.

As Shields points out, under the traditional model the focus of trust is very specific. “Does exactly what it says on the tin,” sums it up. This follows from some core characteristics of the model. These include a tight focus on a very specific consumer need or want; a firm focus on the transaction (once money has changed hands the relationship is over until the same need or want emerges again), and an instrumental ethos of fair exchange, no robbery (assuming it does exactly what it says on the tin and that’s exactly what I want it to do, am I prepared to pay this price for it?).

Brands like these are itch brands, as Bob Tyrrell calls them. I have an itch, I scratch. I am thirsty, I want a drink. Before my itch is scratched it is extremely important to me. But once it is scratched, I can forget about it, moving on to the rest of my life. For this reason, itch brands’ significance within our overall lives is transitory and limited. New, emerging models of branding, however, wittingly or unwittingly reach into parts of consumers’ lives which traditional brands just don’t reach, asking for a much bigger share of life in a variety of different ways.

Some, such as the multiple grocers, have seized a new influence in consumers’ lives by sheer dint of the vast range of products and services they can offer the consumer, and the huge share of purse they now command.

Others openly compete for our hearts and minds as well as our purses, whether it is Greenpeace versus Shell or Monsanto, or Manchester United versus Chelsea.

Others ask consumers to trust them in potentially life-transforming tasks, such as providing a pension or conducting an operation, all the more so as the welfare state retreats and brands migrate into areas once reserved solely for public provision. Yet others loom large in our lives simply because, like governments, they have the power, resources, or technologies to shape our collective destinies. Again, like Monsanto.

When people deal with brands and organisations like these there is a real sense that something more than an arms-length value transaction is taking place. The “real” relationship is with the organisation itself, not the way it manifests itself in a specific product or service. And somehow, it’s about values as well as value.

This values dimension is not about being ethical. It is about perceived risk. The more potential influence a brand has over our lives as a whole, the more we worry about what we are letting ourselves in for – what it doesn’t say on the tin, as well as what it does say.

This is Monsanto’s problem. The product benefits described on a tin of GM food may be wonderful. But the unstated drawbacks (if they are real) are terrifying. Likewise, we may love Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda for their convenience, service and value for money, but as they get ever bigger, do we really trust them to do the right thing with all that power?

In other words, the greater the “share of life” demanded by a brand or organisation, the greater the need for a new level of trust. We are wary of committing ourselves to people, or organisations, whose motivations are in any way suspect. If we are going to accept them into the bosom of our lives, we expect them to act as a friend, to be on our side to some degree or other. Why else let them in?

Brands which succeed in this could be tomorrow’s superbrands. But only if they understand the way the focus of trust is shifting beyond products to the people behind the product. But often they don’t. Itch brands pitch for this territory by puffing themselves up, pretending to offer relationships or meaning that they can’t actually deliver. As Shields comments, “consumers are so sick of brands over-promising and companies presenting themselves as well-meaning philanthropists that when a brand cuts through all the crap, as Ronseal does, it actually engenders great trust and affection”.

Absolutely. Sometimes, organisations which are bidding for a large share of consumers’ lives fail to understand the shifting focus of trust and become an accident waiting to happen.

Either way, where there was once just one core model for brand management based on packaged goods, now there are two, or more. And the $64,000 question is not whether this has happened, but what its implications are. How do “share of life” brands change consumer perceptions of itch brands? How do the two species relate? As competitors? As co-operators? As both?

The answers are still hazy. But what is clear is that the meaning of trust in marketing is shifting. And that affects everyone.

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