Can Govt bring the cowboys to heel?

The Government is lavishing £1.5m on the launch of an initiative to combat poor service in the construction industry. Tom Williams asks if trade backing and promotion will be enough to win over sceptical consumers.

The Department for Trade and Industry's new quality mark scheme for the

construction trade, TrustMark, which launches in the next few months, is

not a new idea. Government agencies and industry trade bodies have been

involved in such third-party endorsement schemes for at least a century.

But in the last few years in particular, quality marks, which bring the

legitimacy craved by consumers and producers alike have

proliferated.

Quality marks now cover everything from trading standards to livestock

husbandry, but the ubiquitous nature of such schemes has not always

guaranteed success.

TrustMark is not the first time the DTI has tried to tackle the problem

of 'cowboy' builders, a subject much loved by tabloid newspapers and

'infotainment' broadcasting.TrustMark's predecessor, Quality Mark, was

terminated last year after attracting just 500 member firms. But Liz

Male - whose consultancy handled PR for TrustMark's launch to the trade

in June and is co-ordinating the consumer campaign (alongside Cow PR),

starting in the next few months - says TrustMark will be different. An

eye-catching marcoms budget of £1.5m is to be spent on promotional

activity.

'The problem with Quality Mark was that individual firms had to be

registered by the Government and the scheme never managed to get enough

firms to jump through the relevant hoops,' she explains. 'TrustMark

works by making the trade bodies go through these hoops. We expect to

have more than 10,000 individual firms this way. There is no point in us

launching the scheme until we have the critical mass. This is a badge of

badges, a signpost to pre-existing schemes.'

In search of quality

Government-backed quality-mark schemes have mushroomed in recent years,

with the purpose of providing consumers with reassurance that a product

or service complies with certain standards.

In the private sector, labelling initiatives include Sainsbury's

Partnership in Livestock badge, which ensures producers adhere to

stipulated animal husbandry standards, and the Fair Trade marque.

Others, such as the English Beef and Lamb Executive's Quality Standard

for Beef and Lamb, emphasise the taste quality of the product.

But with a vast array of quality marks it is easy for the consumer to

become ambivalent, confused or even cynical. Though TrustMark hopes to

simplify consumers' choice of builder by helping them navigate through

the maze of what is on offer, credibility could still be a problem. And

awareness of the badge is an issue its backers hope can be tackled at a

local, as well as a national, level.

'It is a national campaign but we want to get to the grass roots,

targeting local media, because they have a huge influence on purchasing

habits and are often where people get referrals for work,' says Male.

Pete Tynan, principal researcher at Which? (formerly the Consumers'

Association), who sits on TrustMark's board, concedes that in the

'confusing' sector of building and plumbing contractors, TrustMark

cannot be a cure-all solution.

But he insists TrustMark is the most heavyweight attempt yet at tackling

the problem and more likely to be taken seriously than its

predecessor.

'This is not going to be a panacea. You won't expect all firms to keep

to the rules. But the main thing is that consumers will have real access

to a right-of-redress scheme,' Tynan says.

He also points out that Which? has backed TrustMark as opposed to the

Office of Fair Trading's Consumer Codes Approval Scheme (CCAS), which

launches next month, because TrustMark has taken a more gradual approach

to admission of members.

Different standards?

'The standards for CCAS look good on paper, but we think the OFT has

admitted some groups (such as the Ombudsman for Estate Agents (OEA) and

the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT)) a bit too

quickly,' Tynan claims. 'These groups have not arranged their monitoring

adequately.

The only way to monitor properly is to have random inspections and

mystery shopper schemes to make sure they are adhering to the correct

standards.'

OFT comms director Mike Ricketts counters that the combination of the

office's robust standards and the customer surveys conducted by

CCAS-registered members means 'we have the right standards in place'.

The SMMT and OEA agree, with the former saying it is not in its members'

interests to reject the kind of checks mentioned by Which?.

What the public will make of TrustMark and CCAS will depend on how

user-friendly they find them. Like the Government's CAT (charges,

access, terms) minimum standard mark for financial services products,

TrustMark may have the edge here.

While the CCAS has also adopted an easy-to-understand approach,

TrustMark has found itself a catchier moniker and appears to have

learned from the mistakes of its predecessor.

It has taken time to build credibility with the backing of some of the

construction trade's heavyweight organisations.

Getting the press and the public to recognise it as a trustworthy brand

may not therefore be the problem.

Changing consumer behaviour - in turn putting cowboys out of business -

is the real challenge for TrustMark.

QUALITY MARKS: MORE THAN A CENTURY OF LABELLING

- Kitemark (from the British Standards Institute) - first registered as

the British Standards mark in 1903, it has become the most universally

recognised quality mark. This month the BSI unveiled a new Kitemark

scheme to improve service standards in the repair and care of

vehicles.

- Fairtrade Mark (awarded by the Fairtrade Foundation) - now in its 13th

year the standard guarantees that producers have given suppliers 'a

better deal'.

- The Quality Standard for Beef and Lamb (from the English Beef & Lamb

Executive) - launched this year to counter concerns about the

traceability and quality of UK meat. Beef and lamb must be fully assured

and independently audited from farm to meat counter.

- Consumer Codes Approval Scheme (overseen by the Office of Fair

Trading) - rolling out next month, its sponsors must show evidence they

have met core criteria promoting best practice. Approved organisations

include the Ombudsman for Estate Agents.

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