On Monday this week, yet another survey emerged highlighting the waning trust that the British population have in business (brands). The Edelman Trust Barometer report analysed the level of trust consumers have in brands and showed that in the last year, the amount of people who trust business “a great deal” has dropped from 17% to just 10%.
That same evening, having the luxury of being home to watch two back-to-back Channel 4 documentaries (Dispatches and Benefits Street), it occurred to me that there are some simple, yet fundamental reasons for this. Dispatches focused on the disproportionately high level of sugar in consumer goods in the UK versus other geographies and repeatedly highlighted that the industries providing these sugar hits continue to do all they can to hide from legislation reform. #Benefitsstreet is the latest looking glass in to a British community, following the daily escapades of a street in Birmingham where the majority of residents are claiming benefit. Both tell different stories but both highlight that people’s personal and collective well being is at risk because of the inaction of both government and brands. That’s a loaded statement but is a reflection on these groups as a whole. Don’t worry, I have no intention of making this a political rant, but am rather more concerned about the opportunity for brands to demonstrate that they do genuinely care about people.
Capitalism has served both the government and brands fairly well over the last few decades but with the powerful mirror that social media provides and the #ageofdamage, the relentless pursuit of profit is neither in vogue or acceptable. Banks, energy companies and retailers have been the worst recipients to date, but I firmly believe that no industry or brand is sacred from this introspection. The words of Lord Browne, who worked with Edelman to deliver the study’s results, resonated with me: “Business is like Janus, the two faced Greek God; it has enormous power for both good and for harm.”
There are many legacy studies, which provide their own measurement of brand strength, but the metrics are now different. It’s no longer just about being the biggest or the most profitable; people want brands to positively impact their lives. In other words, people want brands to be meaningful to them, their family and friends and their welfare. What the study from Edelman and our #MeaningfulBrands research both have in common, is that they highlight that failure to impact individual’s personal and collective well-being can disable an industry or a brand.
Yet worse, if an industry or brand is seen to have made decisions that materially exacerbate people’s personal or collective well being, consumers will vote with their 140 characters and their feet. Not all energy companies have deceived their customers and indeed some that have, have done this to differing degrees, but your average punter now has a deep distrust of the energy sector as a whole. This creates a tough challenge for both the industry as a whole but also for individual brands. Addressing the industry problem is more challenging as it is wrapped up in political complexities, but brands can and should be doing things differently. I genuinely feel that some energy brands are showing they can stand out from the crowd. These brands (that will rename nameless) were smart and fair in their pricing strategy but have also exhibited honesty and humanness in their marketing since the crisis. A related example from the finance industry, illustrates that it is possible for a brand to buck the overall trend within an industry vertical. Whilst banking has been in the docks for much of the last decade, it is telling to see that Nationwide (a mutual with the meaningful positioning of “On Your Side” scoring 50%) out-performs Santander (more corporate, faceless, Spanish owned bank scoring 33%) by more than 50% .
A related piece of Havas research categorically proves this point with 92% of people agreeing that if a company is honest and transparent, they are more likely to trust it.
For me, the problem here is pretty simple. In general, people struggle to trust businesses (brands) to do the right thing by their customers or society. They have seen too many examples of late, of “stories” being told and decisions being made to benefit the pockets of individuals or shareholders, not them. Think about your personal relationships with people and how you behave. If you don’t completely believe or trust in the narrative of a friend or colleague, how does it alter your own behaviour? This is no different. Our #meaningful brands study clearly proves that there is a circle of trust between people and brands. Those brands that are able to build “meaningful connections” with people are more trusted. As a direct result, people would care more if they disappeared tomorrow, which in a mature market like the UK, is critically important. To add some flavour, the least trusted brand in the UK from our latest study is The Sun at just 17%, whilst the most trusted was Clarks at 85%, contributing strongly to both personal and collective wellbeing. Make your own conclusions on these stats.
We have proven that there is a strong statistical relationship between how well brands serve personal and collective well-being, and how trusted they are. The research analyses 6 categories of well-being, namely physical (e.g. does it help you stay healthy, feel better, look better?), financial (e.g. does it help your financial security, help you link your finances to personal goals?) , organisational (e.g. does it help you to organise your daily life, make your life easier ?) , intellectual (e.g. does it inspire you to learn new skills, consume in a more intelligent way ?) , social (e.g. does it help you connect and share, help you build relationships and feel part of a community ?) and emotional (e.g. does it make me feel good, improve my self-esteem, improve my quality of life ?).
What hopefully strikes you about these attributes is that they are deeply personal. They are about you as an individual, your well being, your happiness, your development and how you feel you contribute to the world as a whole. Given we all recognise the importance of these attributes in our own lives, why is it that brands find it so difficult to operate at this personal, human level? Random acts of kindness touch all of our hearts, yet few brands consider diverting a slither of their huge marketing budgets to fund them. Loyalty to a brand should be rewarded and yet so often today, this is not the case.
Next week: How brands can mend their relationship with society