It was ignoble, I know, but when I heard that a big retail chain was gloomily forecasting a difficult year ahead, I felt a glow of pleasure. Good, I thought, I hope their entrails are boiled in oil and their eyes pop out.
I found myself muttering, “Come, come, Murray, why such unwonted intemperance in one so often mistaken for a sunbeam?” Then I got round to thinking whether it was still possible for a multiple retailer, or any other big institution for that matter, to win public affection: not the kind of mute forbearance that we British reserve for just about every manifestation of public life, but genuine liking, a feeling that somehow things would be a little worse if the institution were not there.
It can be done, and when it is, it is the zenith of marketing. To be liked by your customers is an achievement, to be loved by them is very heaven. For many years Marks & Spencer managed it. Woolworth’s too. It was a measure of affection in which each was held that they earned nicknames – Marks & Sparks and Woolies. How they achieved this exalted state, it is difficult to say. They were both reliable and trustworthy, which is important. They were both quietly and efficiently run, which, though important, is really a minimum requirement. Most important, I think, it that they were ubiquitous; they had been on the high street forever, or at any rate that’s how it seemed. And when a face becomes familiar and is unthreatening, it somehow insinuates itself into your being and becomes a tiny part of your own existence.
Those explanations alone, though, do not unravel the mystery. WH Smith and Boots the Chemist have been around for ever and who honestly cares whether they stay or not? In any case, public affection does not itself last forever. M&S today is just another retailer struggling to compete and Woolworth’s increasingly resembles a pale corpse.
The BBC has suffered a similar decline. For decades it was held in warm esteem. Like M&S in its heyday, it was dependable and managed to combine competence with that most English of virtues, modesty. Though a babble of voices, the BBC somehow contrived to be a single unifying voice. How things have changed. Today the BBC is self-regarding and far too big for its boots. I no longer care whether it sinks or swims. Correction: I would rather it sank.
How, then, to pull off the remarkable trick of being big and loved? Most important, it is not a trick at all. In fact, trickery is the antithesis of what is needed. The more you tell people you are loveable, the greater will be their suspicion. The retailer whose impending troubles caused me to punch the air and thank providence for her kindliness was Starbucks. There are many reasons for disliking Starbucks, apart from the poor quality of its coffee: they include its ambition to take over the world; its silly arrogance in telling customers that small, medium and large are not in the vocabulary and the correct terms are tall, grande and venti; above all, its insufferable self-righteousness. It is a chain of coffee shops – and not especially good ones at that – but affects the gravitas of a philosopher.
You can spot a corporate phoney a mile away – it is the one with a mission statement. Naturally, Starbucks has one, and for right-on priggery it takes some beating. Its “guiding principles” to help it measure the “appropriateness of its decisions” include: “Provide a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity. Embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business. Contribute positively to our communities and our environment.” As an emetic, that is almost as effective as an iced-decaf-triple-grande-five-pump-soy-no-whip-mocha.
In this, as in much else, public relations is to blame. Organisations have been gulled into believing that the word is as good as the deed. Tell people that you are kind to a fault, caring, green, public-spirited and, not to be mealy-mouthed, sainted, and people will believe you and love you for it. Well, they won’t. They will repay your boasting with distaste and distrust. True, they may still buy your products – no one doubts the extraordinary success of Starbucks and Tesco – but that doesn’t mean they like you. The best you can hope for is indifference.
Now that the management of reputations and the manipulation of opinion have become businesses in themselves, I doubt that it will ever again become possible for a large organisation to be the object of warm affection. It is the fate of politicians and companies alike to be viewed in the popular mind as no better, and no worse, than the gas board.