Rebuilding trust

The year 2016 is likely to be remembered for two political events that sent shockwaves around the world: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president. These events yet again brought into question the reliability of polls (from how they drew their sample to the return of the ‘shy voter’ first seen when John Major was elected as prime minister), but more importantly highlighted again the erosion of trust in the institutions that previously were the bedrock of society. For example, the latest Gallup data from September 2016 showed that only one in three Americans had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

When I started in the industry two decades ago, the first thinking was being developed to define a bigger opportunity for brands in a world where we were seeing the first signs of erosion of trust in the political and cultural institutions that defined us. The belief was that there was an opportunity for brands to become the new institution of trust in people’s lives. It spawned thinking like Chiat/Day’s ‘Total Role in Life’ and in many ways informed the rise of purpose-driven branding. This thinking in its purest sense had the opportunity to create a much more honest relationship between companies and people. But unfortunately, this has not played out. As the data from the Havas Meaningful Brands study shows, most people around the world wouldn’t care if three out of four brands disappeared tomorrow. So, perhaps it’s time to re-examine why brands not only failed to fill this trust void but are in long-term decline. After all, they are failing to fulfil their most fundamental purpose: to be a mark of trust.

Perhaps the biggest long-term contributor to this decline has been the bubble that most brands, marketers and their advisors live in. As Harris Diamond, CEO of McCann Worldgroup, said recently in The Wall Street Journal, “Every so often you have to reset what is the aspirational goal the public has with regard to the products we sell. So many marketing programs are oriented toward metro elite imagery. Marketing needs to reflect less of New York and Los Angeles culture, and more of Des Moines and Scranton.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that the world’s most successful marketing organisation, Procter & Gamble, is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.

To break this bubble, we need to look at increasing the diversity of the people who work in marketing and those who advise them. They will not only help bring different thinking but keep brands grounded in a broader reality. We need to break our reliance on Big Data and spend more time with more people, understanding their lives and how we might fit into them. Big Data may appear magical, but it risks turning our understanding of people into something as useful, rich and distinctive as a Google search. Perhaps more radically, there is a need for companies to distribute their locations more broadly. The concentration of industries in small areas — Silicon Valley for technology, Los Angeles for entertainment, etc. — has meant that we have fallen into a predicament best described by William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” If we are to spread new ideas more widely, we need to shape them more broadly.

But perhaps there is a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed. The commercial justification of brands is that they help sell more stuff. As a result of this ‘growth at all cost’ mindset, brand management has increasingly become characterised by the explosion in line extensions, the rise of hyper-segmentation and marketing programmes solely designed to get people to buy more things more often. We are interested in driving transactions but our marketing programmes masquerade as building long-term relationships. We need to decide if we are asking people to buy what we sell or buy into what we do. Far too often we conflate these issues, building aspirational purposes that are at best disconnected from what we do for people or at worst are designed to sugarcoat a far more bitter commercial pill.

If we are to commit to regaining people’s trust, we need to foster our relationships with people and overserve them, as they have been underserved for far too long. We need to find ways to add new value and not always be asking people to buy. We need to examine new ways of building the commercial model to these relationships and take more of a subscription — rather than one-off transaction — mindset. Most of all, we need to get back to brands serving people rather than serving our short-term commercial needs.

This article originally appeared in Admap January 2017