BRANDING

The Trusted Few

Research shows that consumers distrust three out of four companies. If yours is among the trusted, anything is possible.
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I started reading the new book Can’t Buy Me Like about an hour after watching the season premier of Mad Men. The cognitive dissonance left me lightheaded. Mad Men, of course, lionizes those 1960s word- and image-smiths who made brand-name products irresistible--often far beyond their merits. Can’t Buy Me Like describes how advertising has been rendered impotent and irrelevant by social media and consumer cynicism.

We’ve been reading traditional advertising’s obituary for over a decade now. But we’ve always assumed that something else would take its place. That something would still involve a message crafted by a company to promote its image. However, the message would be disguised as entertainment or community-building and delivered through viral videos, guerilla campaigns, and Facebook pages.

Can’t Buy Me Like, by Bob Garfield (co-host of the NPR show “On the Media”) and Doug Levy (CEO of MEplusYou, a creative agency), is subtitled “How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results.”  Its thesis: if companies have actual values, and if they live up to them, then they barely need advertising at all. Those values don’t necessarily have to be “save the earth” or “feed the poor.” But they can’t be “enrich the CEO” or “maximize shareholder value,” either.

“Society has begun to judge our institutions not merely by what they offer but by their conduct, their makeup, their motivations, their inner workings, and even their inner selves,” the authors write. So deliver on your promises. Care about customers’ lives and be as helpful to them as you can. Demonstrate that you share their insistence on ethical behavior.

What I found so refreshing about the book is its challenge to business. It’s not enough to act different. You actually have to be different. Change your nature, if you have to (if that’s possible). Don’t just refrain from lying, cheating, and stealing. Be the guys who would genuinely never dream of lying, cheating, and stealing. Your company doesn’t have to be soulful. But it does have to have a soul.

Having and living values begets trust and, as the authors say, “those whom we trust and adore we trust and adore a lot.” Such earned enthusiasm generates the kinds of endorsements that Don Draper never imagined. But for the most beloved brands, in particular, trust may have different and surprising implications.

Last month I met up with John Gerzema, chief insights officer at advertising giant Young and Rubicon, and a kind of weathervane tracking the winds of consumer sentiment. Gerzema recently conducted research that concludes, among other things, that people today trust just one in four companies. Those companies tend to be ones they deal with all the time and that have proved themselves again and again. Your search engine. Your coffee place. Your source for books. Your source for shoes. “Over time these brands have continually delivered on the basis of trust,” says Gerzema. “So if hardly anyone is trusted, then the companies that actually are trusted get disproportionate consumer loyalty, usage, and preference.”

Gerzema dubs this trend the “rush to routines.” And he observes that it presents enormous opportunities for the trusted few to expand into “distressed categories”--whole industries that are viewed with suspicion and hostility. His research team asked consumers whether, given the choice, they would prefer to open bank accounts with the likes of Citibank and Chase or with Apple, Walmart, and Amazon. The non-banks won handily. “These companies have earned the right to be in our lives, and so we are more likely to consider them for other things,”Gerzema says. “They could corner some really big parts of the marketplace.”

Whether we’ll ever get our flu shots at a Starbucks walk-in clinic or withdraw cash from a Zappos ATM is debatable. (But not really far-fetched. Richard Branson rarely met an industry he didn’t like. And Zappos founder Tony Hseih has talked about starting an airline.) One could certainly imagine such trusted providers partnering with start-ups in those fields--investing in them, or incubating them, or allowing them to operate under an iconic brand name. Sure, as the entrepreneur in those circumstances you would sacrifice autonomy to become the insurance arm of Amazon.com. But you would also have a vast audience primed to use your services 

And as Garfield and Levy would observe, you wouldn’t have to advertise.

Last updated: Apr 18, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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