From hero to zero: Why loss of trust is so damaging for premium brands

Brands that consumers place on a pedestal have a long way to fall, so it’s crucial to keep living up to the high expectations they set.

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There are some brands that are so well perceived in the public consciousness that they appear untouchable. It’s like they’re not in the same league as other brands – they’re on such a high plateau of respect, integrity and admiration that they feel irreproachable.

Rolls Royce, Nike, Apple, Perrier-Jouët, Breitling, Selfridges, Domino’s and Coca-Cola. These belong in the Champions League of brands. And like their footballing counterparts, they’ve had to invest significantly, often over several decades, in order to build and maintain their authority and integrity – and, as such, their value. All of these attributes manifest as the trust they’ve gained and maintained from long-term and highly profitable customers. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship in the truest sense.

There are several tiers below these superstars. At Premiership level you’d probably play Mercedes, Adidas, Intel, Moët & Chandon, Rolex, Liberty, McDonald’s and Red Bull, among others. And beyond them, there are ever less aspirational levels until you get down to the real dross in the Conference division. Nobody ever actually trusts brands at this level – relationships are entirely based on price, and as such are extremely disposable.

It really doesn’t take much degradation of service for a consumer’s trust to be eroded entirely.

Earning your way into the upper echelons of the brand hierarchy is not only costly, but a time-consuming endeavour. Very few brands outside the ChatGPTs of this world achieve global fame without patience and deep pockets. Most of us long-term marketers know, all too well, that brand spends are one of the first things on the CEO’s chopping block when times get tough. The fact this continues to happen when there’s so much readily available evidence to suggest that this is always a monumental mistake defies all logic and reason.

Time alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee success either. Just look at Kongō Gumi Co. Ltd, a Japanese construction company founded in 578 AD, making it the world’s oldest trading brand.

“Who are they?” I sense you asking.


Equally, pools of infinite cash won’t buy you credibility and long-term success, either. Consider Dubai, Virgin Orbit, Google Glass or Yahoo. A mix of hubris, distasteful sociocultural practices, a foggy crystal ball or sheer stupidity sunk or derailed these and many more like them, despite an infinite cheque book.

Which brings me, in a long winded way, to the point of this article. To share three recent instances in which supposedly rock solid, wholemeal, premium and high profile brands let me down, to the extent that it’s unlikely I’ll ever deal with them again – and, worse, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that they shouldn’t touch them with a proverbial bargepole.

The perils of bad customer experience

First up, Disney. Or rather its on-demand offshoot, Disney+. Any parent with kids under 10 will know the emotional entrapment with which this cartoon behemoth has ensnared their monthly direct debit payment. You just have to have it if you want any semblance of peace at home or on long car journeys.

“So be it,” I thought. Until our account was hacked by someone in Mexico who changed all the permissions and started building profiles of their own. I spoke to Disney’s clueless customer service department at length, who told me to log out of every device and change all passwords. Or become well acquainted with the work of Guillermo del Toro, clearly favoured by our hackers.

A month later, we were hacked again, this time by somebody in Hungary, who at least had the good grace to watch cartoons, one imagines with their kids. Then last week it happened again – by a militant Spaniard who, on realising they’d been rumbled (we deleted their profile) created another, using the name to send a message: “Me cago en tus muertos pisoteaos.”

Quite why they would “shit on my trampled dead” I’ve no idea, but what I am clear on is that my four-year-old knows more about cyber security than the $183bn market-cap monster that is Disney.

Next on the list is a posh estate agent I won’t name. We’d let our London place through them, assuming we’d get a high-calibre tenant off our high-calibre agent. Not so.

For premium brands with higher cost per acquisition and significantly higher customer lifetime values, the pain of losing a customer is even more pronounced.

Our supposedly Scandinavian couple turned out to be a Jordanian man and his French girlfriend, who repeatedly sublet the property illegally through Airbnb. Worse, this invalidated the buildings insurance, so we started eviction proceedings. Being seasoned pros, the pair were clued up on property rental law, unlike the pointy-shoe wearing, sunbed-bothering estate agents, who floundered, bluffed and blagged before giving up entirely.

When it came time to pay the piper, they brought out a copied-and-pasted denial, which is hard to do when our lawyer found the tenant was listed at Companies House in relation to more than 9,000 fraudulent companies, despite having passed the agent’s due diligence.

Finally, and most tragically, I give you the formerly vibrant city of San Francisco.

“That’s not a brand,” you might holler. But it absolutely is – all cities looking for tourist dollars are, which is why you dream of going to Paris for a romantic weekend, and not Basingstoke.

I visited San Fran for a five-day gaming conference a few weeks ago. We stayed on Market Street in the Tenderloin district, which was a mistake. Of gargantuan proportions.

The CBD around Market Street had already suffered an influx of drug addicts before Covid, but the exodus of workers during lockdown and the city council’s apparent apathy meant the place is now a modern-day Gomorrah. Hundreds of zombie-like users bristle in every doorway, bent double in unconsciousness – or very conscious – ingestion. Excrement littered the pavement and violence was manifest at all hours of the day.

It wasn’t just scary and unpleasant – it was deeply sad and affecting.

The American Dream is commonly known to be unattainable nonsense, with the 1% preaching opportunity while keeping their feet firmly on the heads of the 99%. Taxes, pharma drugs and a healthcare system that makes medieval London look like a health spa have crushed cities across the USA, and San Fran is a poster child of this sordid decay.

The famous Golden Gate bridge now holds even greater significance as one of the quickest escape routes from this peninsula of abject dejection.

Focus on brand behaviours

We’re happy to pay more for a premium brand because our expectations are greater and anticipation of a quality product or service are assumed. Conversely, if we’re let down by a trusted brand, our disappointment and ensuing negative sentiment will tend to be more dramatic and absolute.

Brands that are prepared to sacrifice years of investment and effort for short-term gain by cutting corners and letting customers down will find themselves in for a rude awakening. It really doesn’t take much degradation of service for a consumer’s trust to be eroded entirely, and this directly correlates to a loss on the bottom line.

According to a 2022 research report by Salsify, 46% of consumers are willing to pay more to buy from a brand they trust, while PwC’s 2021 ‘Trust in US Business Survey’ study went even further revealed 71% of respondents would buy less from a business that lost their trust. What’s more, 73% said they would spend “significantly” less.

For premium brands with higher cost per acquisition and significantly higher customer lifetime values, the pain of losing a customer is even more pronounced. For you premium brand marketers out there, I can’t emphasise this enough – If you make a brand promise, then you unequivocally must keep it.

Every time you don’t, the ripples from the ensuing tsunami of distrust (and subsequent monetary losses) will flow in underground, unattributable waves, washing over your potential target audience – namely, the peers of those you fucked over. It’s the brand butterfly effect – chaos theory for negative empathy. Your only reassurance will be that you’ll never know how much damage you’ve done which, perhaps, is why some marketers choose to cut such corners in the first place.

For the likes of Disney and our high-end estate agent, my negative experiences could well be solitary outliers, but even if (as I suspect) they’re not, their path to redemption would be extremely feasible with focus in the right areas and a behavioural reboot from the top down. I worry that the San Fran brand is already too deep in the mire and long past saving.

Harry Lang is the VP of marketing at Kwalee, the UK’s biggest mobile and PC console games developer and publisher. In 2021 he published ‘Brands, Bandwagons & Bullshit’, a guidebook for young marketers and professionals wanting to understand how marketing, advertising, media and PR works. You can find him at @MrHarryLang and connect with him on LinkedIn.