Can marketing overcome its trust issues?

With the public’s perception of marketers being that they are no more than spin doctors for their brands, Marketing Week asks senior figures in the industry how they would give the function a more positive image.

crossed fingers

Marketing has a bit of an image problem. Many consumers believe the profession is immoral and greedy, selling things that people don’t really need – a view so widespread that a new book, Tell the Truth, tells marketers they need to be more authentic in their claims. Even within businesses the function is often misunderstood, with many departments only consulting marketers when they want to create an advert.

But marketers are fighting back and attempting to rebrand the sector to make it appear more trustworthy. Marc Mathieu, senior vice-president of marketing at Unilever, believes that instead of being perceived as a promotions department, marketing can be considered a noble profession (see Viewpoint, below).

Mathieu, however, has a job on his hands if he is to convince others of his view. One recent article in The Guardian suggested that Footlocker’s popularity among looters in last year’s riots would please its marketing director. It read: “In one sense, mobs of looters at your stores sends the same message as mobs of shoppers. People are desperate for your goods.”

And when the Chartered Institute of Marketing approached environmental commentator Jonathon Porritt for comment on how marketers could tackle social, economic and environmental change for its report The Triple Bottom Line, the result was less than positive.

Porritt stated: “The cumulative impact of billions of corporate dollars, spent marketing their products, year after year after year, stimulating, reinforcing and exacerbating people’s consumerist fantasies, is almost wholly pernicious. Today’s marketing spend constitutes a major impediment to achieving a more sustainable society.”

Now people want brands to stand for more than just a product, they want a human idea that they can believe in

CIM director of research and professional development David Thorp responds: “While that’s a fairly extreme view that overlooks a lot of the good marketing can do in terms of the techniques being used for behaviour change on social issues, a lot of people would agree there was a lot of resonance with their own views. We’re in a situation where marketing is seen as being very short term in focus, when there are wider issues in our society that need to be aligned with.”

Sherilyn Shackell, founder of The Marketing Academy which mentors young marketers, acknowledges that inappropriate marketing in the past has trained the public to notice only poor campaigns, and feels that marketers need to tap into people’s hunger for social change.

She explains: “Consumers are now a lot more aware of how their actions impact on the greater world, and maybe marketing has been a little slow to respond to the new public mindset that says we should be looking at the good we can do, rather than something for entirely commercial benefit.”

Product development

If marketing gets involved in the product development stage of brands, then they can become more involved in driving social change from the product up, believes Unilever’s Mathieu. The FMCG giant’s Crafting Brands For Life strategy aims to holistically marry marketing and product development to re-enforce the idea within the company that Unilever creates truly useful brands that improve people’s lives, and thus make marketing a “noble” function once more.

And it is not just functional brands such as soaps and washing powders that can drive social change, argues Mathieu. He says: “Lifestyle brands have an important part to play in the sustainability agenda because one of the reasons consumers don’t act sustainably is because they see it as a compromise between their lifestyle and the life of the planet.”

Mathieu cites campaigns such as Puma’s Clever Little Bag, which saw a switch to Yves Béhar-designed packaging, as prime examples of how lifestyle brands can implement a successful sustainability agenda. The new packaging not only uses 65% less paper than conventional shoe boxes, saving 10,000 tons of carbon emissions a year, but also includes a reusable tote bag, so customers think they are getting more out of their purchase.

Dove: Real Women campaign shunned petite models

Many marketers will have to challenge the way in which their business approaches product development if their department is to get involved at an early stage of the process, argues Market Research Society (MRS) chief executive Jane Frost.

Frost, who has led internal rebrands at the BBC and HMRC, says: “Far fewer marketers are at the first stage of the design process compared with the number at the selling end of the commercial process.”

Brand strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin, who co-wrote the aforementioned book Tell The Truth, which is soon to be published, adds that marketers need to be instrumental in coming up with products that really are different, instead of just coming up with innovative ways to sell similar types of product. “We live with the premise that you can come up with eight versions of identical toothpaste and smoke and mirrors make them look different. That time is over.”

Ashley Stockwell, who was Virgin Media executive director of brand and marketing and is now global sales and marketing director at Global Ethics, agrees that “the product should sell itself and if it doesn’t sell itself, then you probably need to look at the product”. And this is where marketers could really make a difference to business and their reputation, he believes.

This line of thought led industry body D&AD to launch its White Pencil award last year. The programme challenges the best creative minds to develop an idea or campaign that would change the world for the better, but also show the public that marketing can be a force for good.

D&AD chief executive Tim Lindsay says: “It was expressly invented to demonstrate the power of creativity to change things for the better. There’s a hunger client-side to talk about issues of sustainability, having a purpose beyond profit and being better corporate citizens. Marketing can be a vehicle for that.”

It’s important too that a social agenda chimes strongly with the product’s essential attributes and the key objective of a business – making a profit. Unilever examples include Dove’s Real Women campaign, which featured a range of different body shapes and sizes rather than petite models, and helped promote the “high order agenda” of self-esteem while still encouraging women to buy. Persil’s Dirt is Good campaign similarly encouraged children to abandon their Xbox for more physically engaging play outdoors, but also increased sales as outdoor play meant muddier clothes.

Match promise with delivery

However, many consumers remain unconvinced that companies can do good while making a profit. For Salem Baskin, the key to avoiding this cynicism is to match advertising promises with the services you provide.

He says: “The challenge for marketing to reinvent itself and find new credibility with consumers is to become keepers and communicators of the truth, so that consumers believe brands when they speak to us.”

Perhaps it’s telling that campaigns from Nivea, Nokia, Visa, HP and Canon – which all feature highly in the Reader’s Digest’s 2012 Most Trusted Brands European survey – focus on key product attributes rather than lifestyle branding.

For many companies, creating external trust involves rebranding marketing internally, explaining the importance of brand identity and empowering all employees to live it. This month, investment and legal services provider Legal & General launched its Every Day Matters campaign externally – a strategy that it had been implementing with agency Smith & Milton internally since 2007 (see Q&A, below).

Right language

At Unilever, changing the perception of marketing has meant changing how employees talk about customers. Mathieu says: “It’s interesting to think about how marketing has tried to brand itself. We don’t talk about people, we talk about consumers, or even worse we talk about targets. If you’re a target you probably don’t feel a lot for the people who are targeting you. I’m trying to make our vocabulary more human in essence.”

Language was also important for Frost at MRS when carrying out internal rebrands at HMRC and the BBC, often steering away from the word ‘marketing’ in favour of terms that matched the objectives of other departments.

Frost says: “At the BBC you didn’t talk about marketing, but you could talk about brands. You talked in creative language because that was the language of the business.”

Persil: Dirt is Good campaign encouraged physical activity

When Stockwell was at Virgin Media, rebranding internally meant more than just speaking differently, but stepping outside the marketing department and heading up the HR team for seven months. He says: “It was a way to get the business to understand the importance of brand.”

But Stockwell suggests that marketers are themselves partly to blame for their bad reputation within their own organisations. He says: “Marketers are the worst people at marketing themselves. As marketing professionals, part of our job is to promote our profession.”

Frost suggests that just as Stockwell ventured into HR, improving the standing of marketing might involve getting out of the marketing department. She says: “The trend that happened in the late 1990s of putting marketers on the board has been reversed and that’s a problem.

“There has also been a growth in the customer area [especially with the advent of social media] that needs to be populated by different talents, including operational talents [meaning that the remit of marketing is wider]. Perhaps marketers have to occupy that space rather than hanging on to the name marketer.”

The Marketing Academy’s Shackell agrees that the role of the marketer has shifted dramatically with the digital age and more effort needs to be made to make sure the new world of marketing is well articulated.

She believes: “Marketing at its best is about delivering true value, an exceptional experience for the customer and appropriate pricing. It’s the appropriate focus on what that individual needs to really make a difference rather than what we want to sell them. And if we approach marketing in that way, then how is it not a noble profession?”

Viewpoint: Making marketing a noble profession

Marc Mathieu

Marc Mathieu
Senior vice-president of marketing, Unilever

The birth of marketing was all about improving people’s lives. People like Henry Ford (founder of The Ford Motor Company), used it to drive a social progress agenda.

Brands have always played a pivotal role in society in helping people deal with their fears, anxieties and questions. Brands are a great marker for people, especially in difficult economic times. Now people want brands to stand for more than just a product, they want a human idea that they can believe in.

More than ever people want to be part of the conversation; they want to co-create brands and they want the truth. If they don’t believe they should give their trust and confidence to a brand or they don’t feel like they’re part of the brand trust, then they will shut down. And I think this is a good thing.

One of the core focuses of Unilever’s Crafting Brands for Life marketing strategy comes from the idea of remembering that we are selling products and brands to improve people’s lives. We want to create brands that people can’t live without, inspiring brand love.

The other leg of this new strategy is craftsmanship, which is this balance of logic and magic, art and science. It’s putting as much vigour and precision into the craft of marketing as a craftsman does in shaping a violin, a bottle of wine or a table, and make the experience something a little magical. Marketing should bring something into people’s lives that is a bit more than just an ad or a promotion.

The fact that everyone wants to be a marketer [through social media] and people want to co-create and co-market brands with us shows that we have the opportunity to make marketing one of the platforms for people to drive their agenda of progress.

Viewpoint: Rebranding from the inside


Justin Basini
Former head of customer initiative management and brand marketing
Capital One UK

All the data that I’ve seen shows that marketing and advertising are not trusted at all. This is because most marketing is by definition a biased view of the product.

That external perception gets mirrored internally as well. Marketing people are seen as fluffy shysters who gild the truth, making sure there is more style than substance.

At Capital One, marketers were often seen, perhaps unfairly, as the people who coloured in the envelopes because the main focus of the marketing team was on direct mail.

All the core product and pricing decisions, propositions and marketing channels were decided by analysts. That worked when Capital One was growing strongly, but as consumer behaviour moved much more to price-based comparison, many credit card companies were left with a marketing model that had run out of steam. The winners, including Capital One, altered their focus and started to understand what consumers wanted – we built propositions and campaigns around real consumer needs.

That meant less direct mail, more digital marketing, better propositions with benefits over and above price. Within the company, we took a more integrated approach by creating and marketing products that focused on the consumer and also made money.

Marketing needed to step up by representing and fighting for the consumer, building strong working relationships with the product and risk analysis teams. The challenge was as much about leadership and bravery from the team both within marketing and across the organisation to build on the success of the past while changing key aspects of culture and processes.


Richard Nunn
Brand director, Legal & General


Marketing Week (MW): Do you think the financial services industry is particularly bad at making promises that the organisation is unwilling to meet?

Richard Nunn (RN): Often the industry is just not very good at promoting the good work it does in keeping its promises. We’re in the business of providing products and services to our customers which can have a profound impact on their lives.

Legal and General: Ever Day Matters brand positioning is about real life

MW: What is the thinking behind the decision to externalise the brand now?

RN: Our markets are going through fundamental change. The Retail Distribution Review (led by the FSA to instil confidence in the retail investment market)will bring a new set of challenges for financial services firms. This, plus the ongoing impact digital is having in all our lives, means that having a strong meaningful brand that connects with consumers is vital.

MW: Can you explain the concept behind the Every Day Matters internal strapline?

RN: Every Day Matters guides strategic decision-making in everything we do and say. It determines how we position our company in the market, how we behave, how we compete and how we communicate. Every Day Matters is about real life. It is about showing our customers that we understand their lives and what matters to them.

MW: How does marketing strategy drive cultural change within the business?

RN: A single organising thought allows the whole company to get behind a simple idea. It helps to build a shared culture based on the customer rather than ourselves.


MW: Why is it important to embed a brand position internally before launching it externally?

RN: It is absolutely fundamental. Highly motivated, engaged employees produce greater business performance. We have survey results to suggest that we are making strong movements in this direction. We’ve also made it onto The Sunday Times list of the 25 Best Big Companies to Work For.

MW: How do you ensure that your advertising promises match Legal & General’s services?

RN: We focus on what matters to our customers, advisers and stakeholders by speaking to them in a clear and warm language and by reflecting their lives back to them in our imagery. We demonstrate that we understand them because we’re people too. It’s our business imperative.

Confused about marketing?

Mad Men
Mad Men: US TV series made an advertising seem glamorous and sexy

Although the popularity of Mad Men has made advertising seem glamorous, sexy and even funny, it hasn’t cleared up the confusion between it and marketing, or indeed made either discipline more trustworthy.

The problems with marketing are linked with the problems of advertising, explains Market Research Society chief executive Jane Frost. “There’s a huge amount of research that says customers think they’d much rather have a cost decrease than an advertising campaign. Marketing is seen as a promotional art rather than part of the design process, and part of getting a good product to market.”

Jonathan Salem Baskin, brand strategist and author of Tell The Truth, agrees. “Marketing is seen as an obstacle between the consumer and the truth.

That’s what has driven the use of social media – it gives the consumer an opportunity to work around marketing and get at what they deem to be the important information to make purchase decisions.”

Advertisers regularly poll as among the least trustworthy professionals, scraping the bottom alongside journalists and politicians. In Reader’s Digest’s Trusted Brands 2012 report, advertising was seen as the least trusted institution, with 81% of Europeans saying they had little or no confidence in it, followed by government (75%) and civil servants (67%).

Until marketers can communicate that they are more than just promoters of brands, the role will continue to be derided.