No quick fix

An all-pervasive mood of skepticism and caution out there is casting a pall on brands beyond those in the headlines.

An all-pervasive mood of skepticism and caution out there is casting a pall on brands beyond those in the headlines. This issue our planned Counter Strategy feature was ‘How to woo back consumer/investor confidence.’ Given the recent spate of corporate misbehaving that began with Enron and continues to unfold, and the resulting financial impact – already shaky consumer confidence waning further in the face of continued economic uncertainty – the idea was to ask industry pundits what, if any, marketing efforts could help restore faith in big business and to spark investor and consumer optimism.

Some companies are taking the bull by the horns and attempting to calm concerns and woo investors via mega-spread campaigns, but how any such communication is likely to be perceived right now remains the gazillion dollar question.

While the panel found the issue compelling and offered some good advice, it was the first Counter Strategy conundrum that experts felt defied prescribing specific marketing solutions. Yet despite the daunting gravity, breadth and complexity of the issue, most agreed there is a role marketing can play – but were divided on how, what and when to tackle it.

While the philosophical reflections the issue generated didn’t quite fit in the typical solutioncentric Counter Strategy format, they are definitely thought-provoking, and merit sharing in an Op/Ed forum. So, below are some of the comments on the topic of mending broken trust, solicited by reporter Geoff Dennis:

Frank Palmer, CEO, Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver

I think people are feeling pretty cheated these days. It’s hard for consumers to trust big public companies when it seems like every day there’s another story about improprieties. People are getting nervous, especially when you hear about people losing their pensions and savings because of creative accounting. Remember the retirement promise of Freedom 55? Well, today, you’re lucky if you get close to Freedom 95.

It actually is so bad right now that I’m starting to lose faith.

I think marketing can play a big role. Companies have to step forward and say, ‘I’m an honest player in this.’ Maybe there should be an ‘honest credo,’ a statement from the president in an annual report or something to that effect. I think once those companies step forward with that message people will feel a little better.

Alan Kay, president, Glasgow Group, Toronto

Every business’s brand has suffered because of this widespread skepticism. Even companies that are not in the eye of the storm have to careful.

Definitely, consumers are in buyer beware mode. There are ways to win back the public’s trust, and right now it’s an issue of actions speaking louder than words. My advice is to invest in the brand and keep it consistent. Despite the catastrophic problems, brands can still play a powerful role in regaining trust. It’s hard to kill a strong brand. If you know your customers and every time they contact your company, at the sales level or marketing level, if your message is the same each time, the power of the brand remains intact. And it doesn’t feel like that message is coming from the ivory tower of the corporate office.

Andrew Bruce, EVP, COO, Publicis, Toronto

If you think of the brand as a bank account, well, we’ve done a lot of withdrawals lately without any deposits, but I’m not sure if communication can help, it’s the brand – the personality of your company – that’s taken such a beating.

For me, it’s a fundamental shift that’s needed. As investors and consumers we’ve been trained to think short-term, to have the quick fix. Marketing’s the same way.

We can’t put out messages like ‘trust us’ – that’s shallow and very short-sighted. We need a long-term fix this time. Marketing has to have a vision; it’s not just about the third-quarter results. That’s the kind of thinking that got us into this mess. That’s why we have a media mix: to manage the multiple objectives of the company, you need more than a 30-second spot to help a damaged public consciousness.

This is a much more thoughtful issue and it will take time. I wish there were a quick turnkey solution, but there isn’t.

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While there is no consensus on whether to address the issue head-on with corporate assurances, or to avoid tackling it with marketing/PR tactics altogether, bottom line, at least everyone can safeguard that their actions don’t add to the ‘lost faith’ dilemma.

In light of all this, a quote in a recent Globe and Mail article on roach bait marketing struck me as quite peculiar, possibly outrageous. The ethics of using actors in a bar to tout a new digital gizmo was defended with the response that if questioned, they would admit to being paid by the company.

One wonders: A) How likely is that? Should I be asking everyone I see using some product whether or not they are being paid to do so? B) Surely this falls under the general heading of further engendering consumer distrust.

Best behavior, while not constituting a solution, is definitely required now more than ever.

dubiously, mm et al