It’s time to learn a little humility

Are brands more trusted than governments and their representatives? The question barely seems worth asking: Nelson Mandela on a good day, Barclays Bank on a bad day might be exceptions that prove the rule, but by and large it’s a no-brainer. And that, arguably, is how it should be. Though both corporations and governments must be assiduous in courting popularity, governments have the unenviable disadvantage of being frequently forced to strike a balance among evils. Whereas brands, as we know, are eternally upbeat.

Yet there is no longer an easy compartmentalisation between the realms of business and politics. Disturbing evidence is emerging of a burgeoning phenomenon: guilt by association. Brand reputations can, according to research just released by NOP World, be badly damaged by the policies of government in their country of origin.

McDonald’s has long since pointed the way. It has provided a suitable butt for isolated outbursts of anti-American fervour, from José Bové in France to those of unknown militants in South Africa. Non-violent, but just as effective as a cultural and political protest, has been the emergence of Mecca cola.

The findings of the NOP World survey, however, suggest that these are no random occurrences, but part of a worsening trend.

NOP’s annual report had previously noted that the popularity of major brands, surveyed among 30,000 people worldwide, had stalled. Over the past 12 months that stagnation has turned to decline, and the principal casualties are American-based brands. The number of non-American consumers who trust Coca-Cola has fallen from 55 to 52 per cent, McDonald’s is down from 36 to 33 per cent, Nike from 56 to 53 per cent and Microsoft from 45 to 39 per cent.

It’s not hard to infer from this, as the research company does, that some of this distrust stems from deepening hostility towards the US government’s policy in the Middle East. However, the rot doesn’t stop there. The ‘honesty’ ratings of the above-mentioned brands are even less flattering than their ‘trust’ ratings. Which might well suggest there has been growing disillusionment with the achievements of American capitalism in general, anchored around such landmark scandals as Enron, WorldCom and the Wall Street investor scams.

This last point has a significant bearing on any possible remedy to declining brand trust. It will take more than a sizeable donation to Senator John Kerry’s election fund to shift consumer opinion. A better, and less cynical, understanding of the purpose and limitations of corporate social responsibility would be a start. Yet it is not merely in policy but also in attitude that brands, and in particular US-based brands, need to ring the changes. Greater transparency, and perhaps humility, in dealings with their non-American clientele are a part of this. The recent Dasani affair, from beginning to end, demonstrates the dangers of command- and-control-style global marketing.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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