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Bad news brands

To rebuild consumer trust, brand marketers must rein in their impulse to make grand claims
We have to be humbler, simpler and more realistic in how we depict the role of our brands in people’s lives
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

If there is one theme that emerges from the marketing stories of 2013 it is ‘trust’. Unfortunately, this is not a concept that tends to make news in its positive form. The steady maintenance of a virtue that is supposed to reside at the heart of every brand is hardly a matter to promote excited comment. It is the breach that captures headlines.

And what headlines. “Horse in school dinners”. “Taxpayers face £500m bill for Libor fraud.” “£25m payoff to BBC bosses.” “Archbishop declares war on Wonga.” “Fat-cat energy firms give two fingers to us all.” Over the past twelve months, they have barely stopped coming: breaking news, broken brands.

The question, as we head towards 2014 is what can marketers do about it? How can we all ensure that our brands, and the categories they represent, earn back that most fundamental and valuable of assets from our customers?

Well that’s simple. We can keep our promises. We can ensure that our brands are exactly the things they purport to be, and do precisely the things they claim to do.

There are only two basic ways to achieve this. One is tough, bordering on impossible: it is to work tirelessly within our Byzantine organisations, muscling in on disciplines over which we exert no control, policing supply chains that span the globe, to honour the breathless brand claims we currently make: “Looking after your world”, “On your side”, “Love every mouthful”, “Power to you”.

The other is to make smaller promises.

This is the more realistic way to go, but it will not come naturally to marketers reared on hyperbole and grandeur. Look what happens now, as brand teams gather alongside their agencies to devise marketing themes. It’s a kind of arms race, as routine concepts are tolerated only as ‘starters’ to be ‘pushed’, ‘differentiated’ or ‘taken to the next level’.

It scarcely matters what humble task the product performs, the aim is always to evoke life’s big themes. These days, we don’t just ladder up, we take the elevator, hoisting our brand to the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid in the matter of a moment.

There we stay, our heads in the clouds of ‘self-actualisation’, failing to see the ‘out of order’ notice that has been hung on the ground floor, down at the level of serving basic human needs.

To keep our promises, we must break these habits. We have to be humbler, simpler and more realistic in how we depict the role of our brands in people’s lives, matching our claims to what we can control.

Many marketers, and most agencies, will argue that this will blunt their ability to inspire consumers and gain emotional appeal. I’m not so sure. In a single recent edition of The Times, I noticed two ads that could point the way, utterly refreshing in their candour and simplicity.

The first was for Sainsbury’s, which took a page to inform us that its basic mineral water is, indeed, water that has passed through mineral-rich rocks. With its chaste art-direction, and straightforward prose, it proffered this tautology in order to draw distinction between its product and the same-priced Tesco Everyday Value water, which ‘starts at the mains’.

The second ad, in a much smaller space, was for the upmarket wine-merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, showing a bottle of its Good Ordinary Claret. The headline was “Not the greatest wine ever made“, leaving the copy to point out that it is, nevertheless, something good to drink for £9.

If we’re honest, most of us are custodians of good, ordinary brands, which we attempt to sell for prices somewhere in the region of reasonable. We could do worse than find charming ways to say just that, keeping our promises in line with our powers to deliver, earning a bit more trust, and somewhat fewer headlines.

As 2014 approaches, I’ll drink to that.

Consumer trust in 2013

Food retailers and manufacturers were first in the firing line this year after the horsemeat scandal broke in January. During the following months trust in the food industry declined 24%1. Spending behaviour backed this shift up, with sales of frozen burgers nearly halving.

The banks’ already poor image took a further battering in 2013, with 72% of UK consumers claiming not to trust them2. The Libor scandal came to a climax in February when RBS was fined £390m for rate fixing. RBS’s tagline, which claims the bank is “Here for you”, has never seemed less apt.

After continually making headlines for offering ‘predatory’ and ‘misleading’ short-term credit products at annualised rates of over 5,000%3 – a rate at which, personal finance expert Martin Lewis calculated, borrowing £100 would lead to repayments worth more than America’s entire debt in just seven years – payday lenders including Wonga were called to a government summit to discuss “wide-spread irresponsible lending”. An unlikely candidate weighed in to the debate: the Archbishop of Canterbury, who vowed the Church would offer an alternative to payday loan sharks by expanding credit unions.

After BBC director-general George Entwistle resigned in 2012, following the Jimmy-Saville scandal and a Newsnight report that falsely implicated Lord McAlpine in a separate child sex-abuse case, another furore ensued regarding Entwistle’s severance package, and £25m-worth of pay-offs4 to 150 other outgoing senior executives. Several senior BBC figures were summoned to the Public Accounts Committee, which summarised that the reputation of the BBC had been “damaged”.


This year’s hefty energy price increases happened mostly in October: npower announced a 10.4% hike in prices, adding £137 to the average household’s bill5; British Gas, Scottish Power and SSE quickly followed suit with similar rises. Ofgem reported that almost £100 in every bill is now pure profit. Subsequently, energy became the industry with the lowest level of consumer trust, according to a study published by Which? on November 3.

1Which Consumer Survey 2013  2Gallup Research, May 2013   3Wonga Website: 5853%APR  4National Audit Office, July 2013  5npower