What attitudes to banks tell us about the all-important issue of trust in brands

Trust seems to be a growing issue for brand owners. The latest scandal has been the horsemeat saga in burgers. Tesco (left) acted instantly with full page ads in the national press apologising followed up by a further full page ad informing the public what they have discovered and what they are doing about it. Top marks for Tesco recognising the potential damage this story could do to their reputation/brand.

I guess their response is a result of being a customer-focused organisation; it is all too easy to switch to another supermarket on our next shopping trip.

However it’s not the same with banking on several levels. Apart from the perceived arrogance that never seems to provoke an apology for some of the massive mistakes we’ve seen in recent years, there also seems to be a sense of inertia based on the more difficult prospect of changing banks. How many of Joe Public will actually switch banks based on their feelings?

Evidence from WPP’s BrandZ throws an interesting insight in to the issue of trust. In 2006, trust in their Top 100 most valuable brands had increased by four per cent. Since then (to 2012) all brands have slipped by one per cent and banking brands fallen by six per cent. Back in 2006 banks were about the same as the Top 100 so there’s a fall of about ten per cent in six years. Not as big as one might expect, but there is more evidence.

Last week I asked 100 people via email to rate banks on five levels of trust from very low to very high. 64 per cent claimed not to trust banks with 28 per cent claiming they do, with eight per cent not sure. I’m not suggesting this is scientific but it is indicative of views held by reasonably intelligent people. If I was a senior manager in a leading bank with this information I would want to set up a large scale piece of research to get a more accurate fix on the point.

The trust question in UK society has been put to the test in recent years due to revelations such as the MP’s expenses scandal, phone hacking by the national press, police corruption plus, of course, the mega problems the world has experienced thanks to the gambling on a massive scale by major banks around the globe.

If the cumulative effect of this recent history is a deterioration in trust of the establishment, who fills the vacuum left behind? Well I suggest the evidence is that the public migrates to brands they feel most at ease with, where the confidence level is more robust, (until proven otherwise!).

A contemporary example would be our friends at John Lewis. Amongst the chaos in retail JLP just keeps on breaking records. Many reasons why but I would bet the main one is that it is a safe haven for middle England. That would have been the claim of M&S in the past but I think they have lost it to JLP. Also Apple has its disciples all over the world, a brand with highly desirable values and dedicated customers. Virgin manages to keep its halo polished and must have further opportunity to leverage this position; maybe the Virgin Money bank will gobble up customers from the traditional banks?

Bill Bernbach (pictured) said many years ago, “If you stand for something you have people for you and people against you. If you stand for nothing you have neither.” A wise opinion and more true today even than when he jotted it down. One of the key components of standing for something today is trust.

The big challenge for marketing and advertising folk is how to engender a ‘feeling’ of trust. There is little point in expressing the old cliché of “Trust me, I’m a doctor” because the usual reaction is the opposite. It is all about actions and not words. The people charged with the public communication of brands must have the support of top management within brand owners to propagate an attitude of trust. Researcher Millward Brown has a product concerned with reputation management – it is focused on ‘The Quest for Trust’. It requires, amongst other things, a clear business strategy that expresses ‘Doing the right thing – for the right reasons’. There is more to it than that but it’s a great beginning.

Having been a brand manager at Cadbury a hundred years ago I can confirm it was a company with very high moral values, a company that embraced customer trust. It was also a brand that millions of people had warm, comfortable feelings about. I hope current owner Kraft understand that legacy and sustains it.

This post first appeared on paul-simons.co.uk

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About Paul Simons

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Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.