Britains most trusted brands

Trust has never been as important to either companies or consumers as it is now. In a recession, only the brands that engender most loyalty among their customers will survive. After a financial collapse that has emasculated some brands once seen as national institutions, such as Woolworths, uncertainty has brought trust to the fore like never before. By Marketing Week reporters

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This is why the Reader’s Digest annual survey of Britain’s most trusted brands, now in its ninth year, has more relevance than ever before. Among the results are some surprises as well as some familiar names that have won their categories year after year.

One shock in the overall results is the lack of own-brands appearing in the survey. While retailers are reporting customers migrating to own-label products, this doesn’t seem to be reflected in terms of consumer trust. This year, own-brands accounted for just 3% of all the votes cast in every category except food. The presence of own-brands as “most trusted” doesn’t seem to be climbing significantly either.

How does this square with the increasing prevalence of own-brand on the shelves? It may be that there’s a difference between a product purchased as a favourite item and something bought for pragmatic reasons, primarily price.

Consumers may well be trading down but they are no more trusting of their lower-priced generic purchases than they ever were.

Tesco again dominates the food retailing category, albeit with a slight fall in its lead. Although much has been made of consumers trading down to budget retailers such as Aldi and Lidl, their share of voting remains insignificant and almost static year on year. This would seem to indicate that even if some shoppers are trading down, long-term loyalties have not shifted and trust remains with brands with which they have well-established relationships.

Another area of surprise is the mortgage category. With the financial crises fresh in people’s minds, Nationwide has overtaken Halifax to become the most-trusted mortgage lender. Halifax had led the survey for the last eight years in this area.

This change may be due to consumers having better understanding of Nationwide’s greater independence from financial markets than some of its banking rivals. Its advertising campaign, which features a spoof bank manager and focuses on applying common sense to finance, may also be having an impact.

Another surprise from the survey is that Lloyds TSB has held on to its position at the top of the bank/ building society category. It has taken this spot consistently, albeit by a slender margin, since the inception of the survey. With so much press regarding the turmoil in the financial sector, it is interesting to see that Lloyds TSB has retained consumer confidence.

It might also have been expected that survey completion rates would fall in the banking category, as consumers register their dismay at events in the sector by failing to name a brand at all. Yet Reader’s Digest reports that this is not the case, with 89% of respondents naming a trusted brand.

Perhaps this demonstrates the distinction between how people perceive the dismal economic outlook overall, against their ongoing personal experience of banks as day-to-day providers of financial services, with whom many have had long-term relationships.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in the car sector. While Ford may be suffering in the economic environment with sales heavily disrupted, it appears that consumers still trust the brand. It tops the category, as it has since the survey began.

A number of other names have also sat at the top of their respective sectors for the past nine years. Pain killer Nurofen, holiday brand Thomson, white goods marque Hotpoint, washing powder Persil and camera brand Canon all remain the most trusted in the eyes of consumers.

Boots tops no less than three categories – cosmetics, which it has led since 2002; vitamins, wrested from Seven Seas in 2007; and it has recaptured the sun care category, which it lost to Nivea in 2007 and 2008.

Reader’s Digest managing director Chris Spratling says that all the winners – new and old – have something in common: “When you look at them closely it’s not hard to understand why they have won. All have been consistent to their brand values and at the heart of those values is a desire to build trust”.

One brand that has seen a steep decline in its share of consumer trust sits in the insurance category. Norwich Union has lost the top spot, which it had held since 2004, to Direct Line. This is possibly a result of Norwich Union’s ongoing rebrand from a long-established British moniker to the more anonymous Aviva. It could also be a result of more competitive pricing from Direct Line, which emphasises the cost of its policies in advertising.

Spratling adds that Direct Line’s victory may demonstrate that consumers are becoming more aware of how price comparison websites work. Since Direct Line famously does not list itself on these services, Spratling suspects consumers are learning that companies can pay to have more prominent positions on such websites and are becoming cynical about using them.

British Airways has faced a variety of difficulties in recent years and would seem to be showing some cracks in how much it is trusted by consumers. Although it still wins the airlines category by a comfortable margin, it registers its lowest share of the votes since the survey began, scoring 36% this year, compared with its peak share of 51% in 2002.

Some of this may be down to the chaotic opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 last year, but the fact that BA remains the most-trusted airline suggests the debacle may have done the airline less harm than expected as BA took responsibility for its mistakes and has largely resolved them.

The internet service provider category has seen significant movement. Last year, Virgin Media came from nowhere to take first place, despite a reputation for poor customer service. This is perhaps testament to the power of the Virgin brand, combined with a mass advertising blitz. In this year’s survey, Virgin Media has remained static and BT continued a more measured rise to overtake Virgin and regain the category it headed in 2007.  Meanwhile, AOL, winner in 2006, sees its share of the vote going in the other direction.

In some categories, the voting throws up some interesting anomalies.  In the mobile handset category, Nokia dominates, yet Voda- fone, Orange and O2 also have small but significant shares of the vote – despite not actually producing handsets – demonstrating that consumer perception does not always match reality.

Similarly, in the credit card category, winning status has bounced between Visa and Barclaycard since 2002, despite the fact that Barclaycard must use the Visa or MasterCard operating systems so the two are not really comparable. Barclaycard triumphs this year for the second year running.

Dan Collins, author of Trust Unwrapped: A Story of Ethics, Integrity and Chocolate, thinks the current atmosphere of insecurity creates “opportunities” for brands that see trust as something to shout about.

He points to Specsavers, the winner in the optician sector, as an example of a well-managed brand that has adapted its message to fit the prevailing mood. The brand has topped the optician category in the Reader’s Digest poll consistently since the category was introduced in 2002 and has incorporated this information into its advertising.

But which brands are likely to top the most-trusted list next year? While few would have predicted the economic disaster of 2008 and 2009, some things remain likely for the year ahead.

With blogs, social networks and online media increasing in importance and wielding more influence than ever over consumer decisions, Collins suggests that trust is not simply being eroded by the economic situation. As people absorb more information about brands from a variety of sources, they grow more cynical about corporate claims.

He adds that this gives smaller and more ethical brands an opportunity to parachute themselves into the list for 2010. By focusing on trust and integrity, he says they have the chance now to make a bigger impact than would be possible in a buoyant market. For the brands without baggage, this is an opportunity.

Case study: Cadbury

Cadbury reigns over the UK chocolate market in consumers’ eyes. The brand – with its distinctive purple packaging, a shade once historically reserved for monarchs – is the most trusted chocolate producer, according to public opinion.

In the three years that Reader’s Digest has included chocolate as a category, Cadbury has increased its lead each year. While its Green & Black’s organic brand is also perceived to be high quality, no other chocolate comes close to the parent Cadbury brand in terms of trust.

It enjoys a winning margin of 53% and dominates its category more than any other winning brand. Even a widely publicised salmonella scare in 2006 appears to have had no impact on the level of trust people have in Cadbury.

Cadbury Trebor Bassett UK marketing director Phil Rumbol believes a combination of factors are behind British consumers’ apparently unshakeable trust in the brand. He says: “As a company, Cadbury has really clear values that drive how it behaves.

“In many respects, you cannot separate the company from the brand. Those values of integrity, honesty and striving to do the right thing govern the way Cadbury does business.”

Rumbol goes on to say that Cadbury was involved in corporate responsibility “decades before the phrase was even coined”. The company claims to have been the first UK company to give workers Saturday off, the first to have a company doctor and it famously created a self-contained village for its workers at Bournville.

These are tangible examples, Rumbol says, of how the business was founded in 1824 and continues to be run. Cadbury announced earlier this month that it would be working with the Fairtrade Foundation to make all Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars carry the Fairtrade mark to show cocoa had been sourced from the company’s farms in Ghana.

Cadbury has also been working to engage consumers with its advertising. Beginning with the Gorilla campaign in 2007 and most recently with Eyebrows, featuring children with dancing eyebrows, the company has aimed to stir and rekindle affection for the brand with offbeat marketing that has more to do with making people smile than talking about chocolate.

Rumbol explains: “At the heart of the campaign is the fact that chocolate makes you feel good. Instead of telling people chocolate makes you feel good, the aim is that the ads make them feel good by giving them little moments of joy.”

Cadbury has also signed up as a sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics and its involvement will tap into the celebration and community side of the event.

Rumbol believes that the ability of Cadbury to put the salmonella scare behind it and appear unaffected in consumers’ eyes is down to having plenty in “the bank of goodwill”.

Rumbol was formerly marketing director at InBev and was just six weeks into his new job at Cadbury when news of the salmonella problem broke.

He describes a consumer focus group held at the time, where one member of the group cast aspersions on Cadbury’s handling of the issue, prompting the rest of the group to vigorously defend the brand. “I’ve never seen that before,” he says.

“I would hypothesise that level of trust comes from lots of small things that Cadbury has done that we have all experienced; maybe nothing particular sticks in your mind but you have the overall sense of fairness and decency.”

Rumbol reflects that it takes “a long, long time for that kind of reputation to build up”.

He says that he is unlikely to rest on his laurels, despite reigning over the chocolate category in consumer trust. “It will be a challenge to keep hitting the heights we have reached but that’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Case study: BT

BT has spent millions of pounds promoting its broadband service since its launch in 2002. The effort seems to have paid off as it was named the most trusted internet service provider (ISP) in the 2009 trusted brands survey.

The telecoms giant has expanded its range of broadband offerings and unveiled its home hub system last year, enabling customers to share connections wirelessly from anywhere in the home.

The home hub has been heavily promoted across TV, online and press under the “BT Total Value” banner. Ads show actor Kris Marshall playing a man living away from his girlfriend finding that BT offers “unbeatable wireless connection compared to other UK broadband providers”.

In the trusted brands survey, the ISP claimed top place for trust in its category by the narrowest of margins, with 24.4% of votes compared to Virgin Media’s 24.3%.

John Petter, BT Retail’s managing director consumer, says the company now rewards its executives for good customer service and this has made all the difference.

“Customer service experience has been a major focus for BT in the last couple of years and we’ve made good progress,” he claims.

BT says it now considers all its relationships with customers to be long-term ones, aiming to create a positive experience “from bid to bill”.

But Petter admits that all relationships need to be taken one step at a time. “You can’t buy customer trust, you have to earn it. BT does this by admitting that we are not always right, but are consistently right.”

Indeed, BT has faced critics in the past year. Its TV ads attracted complaints from parents after one ad was seen to encourage parents to allow their kids to use the internet without supervision. Another featuring the Gremlins and Dragons’ Den judge Peter Jones was deemed too scary for children. The Advertising Standards Authority did not uphold either complaint, however.

BT’s decision to trial behavioural targeting software Phorm also raised concerns over user privacy, though this was run on an opt-in basis with customers agreeing to pilot the technology.

None of these issues seems to have dented consumer trust in the brand, however, which has regained its spot as the most trusted ISP in the survey after losing out to Virgin last year.

BT aims to hold onto its most-trusted title in the future by emphasising the “value” of the service. While BT is not always the cheapest option for consumers seeking an internet connection, Petter says the company will play up all the extras it can offer consumers, including various security settings, backup options and BT Vision TV. It will also flag up its ability to deploy super-fast broadband now that Ofcom has given this the green light.

“We’re taking a brief moment of satisfaction with this and then getting on with the job,” Petter says, adding that BT will definitely be “looking to keep our status next year”.

Case study: Barclaycard

Barclaycard has retained the top spot for most trusted credit card brand in the Reader’s Digest survey for the second year running, sitting comfortably ahead of Capital One, which is in fourth position.

The provider offers cards using the Visa and MasterCard payment systems but, interestingly, these brands sit in second and third position respectively. Even though you can’t have a Barclaycard credit card without one of these brand symbols attached, it appears that consumers don’t care about this necessary detail.

So what exactly is Barclaycard doing to ensure consumers look to this brand as the gold standard?

Gary Twelvetree, director of brand and advertising for Barclaycard, believes it’s the air of confidence the brand exudes that stays in consumers’ minds. “Right back from the early days and through the Eighties, the advertising campaign was about confidence. It was about being confident anywhere throughout the world with Barclaycard.”

But while trust and confidence might be important to the company, a brand cannot survive on those attributes alone, Twelvetree argues.

“There are lots of brands that you can trust but the problem is they are not relevant. It’s important for Barclaycard to be trusted because it’s the bedrock of any great brand, but equally it needs to be relevant.”

Barclaycard slipped to second position in the credit card sector in 2006, dipping further below Visa in 2007. Twelvetree believes that this fall in trust at the time was down to Barclaycard failing to push its relevance. He admits: “There was a period where we stopped being as relevant as we needed to be and actually in some ways relied too much on just the trust part and communicating the message that we’ve been here a long time.”

The company’s advertising campaigns have moved on from the days of comedian Rowan Atkinson promoting confidence in using the credit card anywhere around the world. The most recent campaign focuses on the convenience of the Barclaycard OnePulse contactless payment card. The ad shows a man leaving work, and going home on a waterslide, passing contactless payment points along the way.

Twelvetree says this product development and ad follows Barclaycard’s “one step ahead” brand proposition. He says this global strategy has three elements – confidence, control and convenience.

“Our recent waterslide ad is much more about convenience and the control element, but equally I think that Barclaycard can do that because it has the confidence piece nailed.”

For 2009, Twelvetree is hoping that the results of the survey show that Barclaycard has not fallen prey to the general lack of consumer trust in financial services after the economic fallout of the past few months. He is keen to push positive messages and argues that consumers have moved on from needing reassurance.

“They are used to having conven­ience and control in other parts of their life and they want the same thing with financial services and their money,” he says.

Ultimately, Twelvetree says that Barclaycard must be judged on “delivering again and again”. Now the brand has worked out how to deliver on the trust front, it is concentrating on being relevant over and over again.

Case study: Nationwide

Being voted the most trusted mortgage lender by British consumers might at first seem like cold comfort in the financial services market, which has suffered such a catastrophic loss of overall confidence in the past few months.

But Nationwide Building Society can draw some satisfaction from overtaking Halifax (part of HBOS) as the most trusted mortgage lender. Halifax has led voting in the mortgage category for several years, easily seeing off its rivals. 

However, a steady decline in Halifax’s percentage of votes since 2007 combined with a dramatic upturn in Nationwide’s 2008 tally has been enough to force Halifax off the top spot for the first time since the survey began.

So what has caused this reversal of fortunes for Nationwide? The building society’s head of brand strategy David Nottingham admits: “It’s fair to say we are not immune from what is happening in the financial services sector.”

But he suggests that extensive media coverage of the financial crises of 2008/09 has led to consumers better understanding this sector. As a result, they are able to appreciate that as a building society, Nationwide is less dependent on capital markets than its bank rivals.

Nottingham says all the company’s external marketing has emphasised this position, focusing on “responsibility and trying to push forward the customer agenda of looking after members consistently. It just so happens in current times, those are exactly the virtues customers are looking for”.

The marketing may also be having an impact. The brand’s long-running TV campaign starring comedian Mark Benton emphasises the importance of plain-speaking and down-to-earth advice. While these may be less flashy than the ads run by mortgage-lending competitors, the practical approach may appeal to cynical consumers.

Nottingham cites two specific marketing drives that he believes have helped boost Nationwide’s status in the eyes of the trusted brands survey respondents. First, the company launched a “reassurance” campaign in January, aiming to use “a degree of empathy with the current predicament of customers”.

In keeping with the suspicions of consumers and lack of trust generally in the financial world, this campaign features third-party endorsement, such as research from price comparison website Moneysupermarket.com, which claimed Nationwide was seen as a “safe haven”.

Second, the brand’s advertising has acquired what Nottingham calls a “more assertive tone”. He says: “We are bringing forward confidence around our current position, based on our values and principles and the way we run our business. I think that we can own responsibility and prudence in a way the banks certainly can’t.”

Despite this ebullience externally, Nationwide’s marketing department has experienced some uncertainty over the last year, with the exits of sales and marketing director John Sutherland in September and head of brand strategy Peter Gandolfi – who Nottingham replaced in an internal promotion – in November 2008.

The changes of personnel do not appear to have had a negative effect on Nationwide. Incoming Abbey marketer Chris Rhodes, who takes the position of group product and marketing director, beings his board-level post next month. And an unseemly falling out with long-time advertising agency Leagas Delaney at the time of Gandolfi’s abrupt departure appears to have been resolved.

With a new team in place and board-level representation for marketing, Nationwide will be hoping that it can maintain its position throughout 2009 as the most trusted mortgage provider, regardless of the wider financial climate.

At a time when government ministers are calling for a more “boring” form of banking, perhaps its building society principles of prudence and reliability are the brand’s most innovative asset. While its marketing team might prefer Nationwide to be thought of as a modern institution, its old-fashioned values may be the key to its future.

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