Trust is key to modern branding

Trust for mega-brands has soared to the extent that today’s consumer has more faith in Kellogg and Asda than in the Church. Brand managers are focusing on a benevolent image, but as Alan Mitchell explains, they must not forget the value of the

The UK public now trusts many major brands more than it trusts either the police or the church, according to the Henley Centre. In research for its latest volume of Planning for Social Change, 64 per cent said they trusted the church a great deal, or mostly, to be honest and fair, while the police scored 62 per cent.

Brands such as Kellogg, Cadbury, Heinz, Nescafé, Rowntree, Coca-Cola, Boots, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda all achieved higher scores, sometimes comfortably, as the chart shows.

The Henley Centre has been charting the decline of trust in public institutions for a long time, but burgeoning levels of trust for brands (Asda’s trust ratings are up 21 points to 67 per cent in three years) has led it to suggest that something fundamental is happening to brand management. The Henley Centre now says: “We have seen a quantum shift in the importance of trust in the brand arena.”

Faced with an explosion in choice, the steady decline of the credibility of institutions they once turned to for help in making choices, and the ever-increasing “privatisation of risk” in areas such as employment, health and pensions, individuals are faced with increasingly “onerous… choices in the areas of life management”, suggests the report. And “brands are ideally positioned to fill this trust vacuum”.

What’s happening, suggests Henley Centre chief executive Paul Edwards, is that brand management is becoming trust management – a far more embracing task, where “marketing by trust becomes more of a philosophy than simply the responsibility of a department” and where marketing reaches be-yond responsiveness to consumer needs to “responsibility to the consumer: knowing the right thing to do or be, even where the customer doesn’t”.

If so, that makes brand management a very different task to the one commonly practised. If, for instance, the focus of consumer trust is moving away from attributes of the product – its quality, special features and value for money – to the nature of the organisation behind the product – its integrity, its judgment, its being “on my side” – then the brand manager’s emphasis on positioning and marketing communications is sidelined.

The Henley Centre’s findings also point to the emergence of new types of brand warriors, such as “trust iconoclasts”. Instead of fighting on traditional battlefields using a brand’s attributes and imagery, they invent new ways of penetrating brand armour, by sewing seeds of doubt in customers’ minds.

Asda is emerging as one such trust iconoclast, its line of attack being “this brand may be great, but did you know how much they are ripping you off on price?” This is more than price warfare. It is implying that a rival’s philosophy is to screw its customers. Pressure groups are another type of trust iconoclast, their line being, for example, “the product may offer value for money, but did you know it uses child labour?”

Brands which make the leap to become “trust managers” open a new world for themselves, suggests the Henley Centre. They can position themselves as a partner helping consumers to “confront, share and manage” risks in life which were once underwritten by state institutions. And they can move into all manners of new ventures, as has Virgin, particularly where “the customer feels vulnerable to making the wrong decision” – such as financial services, or new technology.

“Partnership” is a crucial word. A trust brand is a brand consumers can trust to outsource what the report calls “life management”: from looking after my pension or personal finances, to helping me organise my house move, or coping with my weekly shop. A trust brand can also be used to outsource worry. In a world full of conflicting claims and counterclaims, who can I trust to give an honest, balanced, straightforward answer. Is it Shell? Or is it Greenpeace? Such a brand could transform the competitive environment, getting close to customers in ways that leave more traditional brands out in the cold.

The question is, can or should all brands seek to make this quantum shift? Henley’s Edwards says yes. “I exaggerate to make the point, but if you’re not making this leap, you’re in trouble,” he declares.

Perhaps true in theory. But for many brands it may not be the best conclusion. Another way of looking at the chart is to conclude that two very different types of brands are currently attaining equally high levels of trust. The first is a traditional product (or service) brand, and it is trusted primarily for its specialist expertise. The second is moving beyond product and service branding to brand the relationship it has with its customers, its promise being “in all your many dealings with us you will find we express these qualities” (such as friendliness, value for money and so on).

They are, in fact, fundamentally different species. While the product brand does all it can to appeal to, and stay close to, its customers, this appeal and closeness revolves around the purchase and use of the product itself. The brand is transaction focused. The second type of brand is arguably a new type of species, focused not so much on achieving individual transactions but on its overall relationship with its customers, which it sees as the ultimate source of its profits.

The chances are consumers will want to deal with both, though when and where one species’ offer will be superior to the other’s remains an open question. Perhaps one will drive the other to extinction, but it seems highly unlikely. What is likely is that in the contest for supremacy between them, the ingredients of successful brand management will be transformed – for both.


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