In his 2004 book Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose Your Market Tomorrow, Al Golin, founder of public relations network Golin/Harris, says that most companies in the post-Enron era are only too aware 'how the by-products of distrust - suspicion, anger, cynicism and disappointment - drive down stock prices, harm employee recruitment and retention efforts, and cause customer defections to competitors'.
In a climate where brands crave trust, the results of the 2005 Reader's Digest Trusted Brands survey are particularly interesting. The prevalence of long-established brands in the survey - several have managed to hold on to their 'most trusted' status for five consecutive years - underscores the ability of such brands to hang on to consumer trust, even in an environment that has become increasingly cynical about marketing.
Even some established brands that have seen a decline in sales or profits - such as Boots or Nescafe - are still by far the most trusted brands in their categories. So are brands that have come under fire for particular products - for example, Kellogg, criticised over high levels of sugar in some of its cereal brands, and Coca-Cola, which last year faced embarrassment over the failed launch of water brand Dasani.
The results pose the question of whether longevity is the key to a brand's trusted status. Or could established names still be under threat from newer 'challenger' brands that aim to forge a more honest relationship with their consumers?
When Reader's Digest asked consumers to score brands on attributes such as quality, value, strong brand image and understanding consumer needs, the established 'trusted' brands were often beaten by challenger brands or brands with a more ethical stance. For example, the Co-operative Bank was the highest-scoring bank on all four of these attributes, beating Lloyds TSB, which was the most trusted brand for that category. Other challenger brands scoring highly in these areas include Fairtrade coffee, Google in the internet category and Ecover in household cleaners.
So why do these brands not win 'most trusted' status in their categories? According to Suzanne Lugthart, head of research at Reader's Digest, when respondents were asked about brands with these individual attributes, the more niche brands tended to be named by smaller proportions of people. But these people are more likely to be consumers of the brands, and therefore to score them highly.
Branding experts agree that consumers tend to rely on familiarity and awareness when asked to name a brand they trust. 'People will name the bigger brands that have been around longest. But if you probe more deeply, people are looking for much more from brands they trust - honesty, for example,' says Angela Pirrie, a director of brand-value management company Charteredbrands.
Jasmine Montgomery, director of strategy at brand consultancy Futurebrand, points out that the brands that score highly in the Reader's Digest survey are 'brands people feel safe with - they are the grey-haired brigade among brands'.
Shoe retailer Clarks proves this point. With so many fashionable shoe brands on the market, many onlookers would perceive Clarks to have a somewhat outdated image. When it comes to trust, however, Clarks scored the highest in its category in the Reader's Digest survey for the second year running, with 48% of consumers voting for it this year, only a slight decline on 50% last year.
Clarks' margin of victory is even more impressive. Marks & Spencer (4%) and Hotter (3%) have replaced Brantano and Barratts as the next most voted for brands in the category.
Clarks' reputation is based on foot-friendly products that, while not always the most fashionable around, have a solid reputation among consumers. These values are evident throughout its history, going right back to one of its earliest marketing successes - the Hygienic line, launched in the late 19th century, which followed the natural shape of the foot.
Not wanting to lose too much ground to the competition in terms of fashion, Clarks has in recent years attempted to update its image. Its most recent campaign, created by St Luke's, used the slogan 'Life's one long catwalk' to project a more fashionable approach.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the strength of the Clarks brand lies in the trust it enjoys among UK consumers. Rosemary Carr, Clarks' marketing director, cites the brand's 'ongoing commitment to great product design, premium quality and, above all, the consistent and dedicated delivery of expert service in our stores' as key to its 'most trusted' status.
According to Giles Gibbons, founding partner at consultancy Good Business, this reputation can have long-term benefits. He argues that brands that score highest on trust are likely to have built up a 'bank of goodness' among consumers, so that if something goes wrong, they are more likely to retain their trust than less established rivals. For example, when Coca-Cola came under fire over Dasani, it acted quickly to remove the product before too much damage was done, and the brand's already high levels of trust protected it from serious harm.
Even so, a brand safety scandal, such as the Sudan 1 food scare, can deal a damaging blow to trust. Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, believes brands can even lose their trusted status if they are seen as keeping bad company - for example, Ford's image was seriously tarnished in the US over the scandal involving Firestone tires. Scares can also damage the whole category - Lea & Perrins has been advertising its Worcestershire sauce heavily in the wake of Sudan 1, even though it was Premier Foods' Worcester sauce that was affected.
Despite these dangers, Futurebrand's Montgomery believes a failure in products or services is not automatically guaranteed to lose consumers' trust. 'The brand should be able to transcend the products and services, and the brand team should be able to distinguish between products being out of favour and the brand being out of favour,' she says.
Both Montgomery and Charteredbrands' Pirrie question whether the established brands named by respondents to the Reader's Digest's survey inspire the same type of trust as a smaller challenger brand might. Montgomery believes that, while longevity and market dominance are the two factors consumers immediately think of when asked to name trusted brands, a survey on the subject should also take account of whether the brand 'speaks the consumer's language' and whether it challenges the category.
Pirrie adds: 'Whereas 20 years ago trust was more about quality and consistency, these days it is about the emotional relationship the brand has with the consumer. Perhaps we should be asking whether people actually want this brand as a friend and whether they would invite them to dinner.'
Reader's Digest's Lugthart points out that, while a brand's longevity is a factor in trust, relatively new brands make it into the survey every year, albeit with smaller shares of the vote. One example this year is eSure, which scored 2% in the insurance category. 'Its humour-led advertising strategy has succeeded in raising awareness and started to build relationships with consumers,' she says.
For many big brands, buying into a smaller niche brand that has a more emotional relationship with the consumer is the answer to satisfying consumer trust on a number of different levels. Examples include PepsiCo's recent acquisition of PJ Smoothies, McDonald's stake in Pret A Manger, Estee Lauder's buyout of beauty brand Jo Malone and Unilever's takeover of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
While some argue that the motives behind these acquisitions will be obvious to increasingly cynical consumers, Good Business' Gibbons points out that when big companies buy a small, trusted brand, they often find that the corporate social responsibility policies are more rigorous at the parent firm.
Although there is a perception that challenger brands tend to be more honest with their consumers, Gibbons argues that it is actually the bigger brands that are forced to be more responsible, because they are the ones in the firing line. 'If you are going to have a go at fast food, you have a go at McDonald's, because it is the biggest, so these are the companies that are having to respond,' he says.
There is a definite trend among marketers toward trustrelated marketing. John Drummond, chief executive of consultancy Corporate Culture, believes that companies are discovering how to communicate with consumers on issues that will, they hope, earn them trust and loyalty. He identifies five principles around which trust-related marketing is based: authenticity, personal benefit, empathy, timing and belief.
Drummond believes that this shift in emphasis reflects a realisation that trust can have a direct impact on business success. 'It is happening now because marketing directors are looking beyond loyalty based on price or convenience and are increasingly seeking emotional loyalty from consumers,' he explains. 'At the same time they are recognising that the key audiences are not opinion-formers but customers.'
The consumer marketplace has never been more competitive. In every sector, countless brands are fighting it out to win customers and then keep them. But with consumers more marketing-savvy than ever, loyalty is not easily won. It is clear that trust in both the benefits of the product and the marketing messages being relayed is vital to maintaining consumer relationships. Loss of this trust could damage a brand's sales for as long as it took to build up that trust to start with. That's a lot of marketing effort gone to waste.
CASE STUDY - NOKIA
Nokia is the most popular mobile brand for the fifth year running, beating Orange and Motorola by a wide margin with a 57% share of the UK vote in its category. It is also the number-one mobile brand in all 14 countries surveyed by Reader's Digest across Europe (see page 37).
What is so impressive about Nokia is that the brand has come to dominate consumer trust in a relatively short time period compared with many other brands named in the survey. The mobile category has only emerged over the past decade.
Although Nokia faces increased competition from challenger brands such as Samsung (which this year scored highly in the 'quality' and 'value' attributes in the survey), its market share is now rebounding on the back of a reinvigorated marketing effort.
Simon Lloyd, head of UK marketing, says Nokia's trusted status is founded on its excellent product and ease of use. 'A handset is a product that can be daunting, but once a consumer has used a Nokia, he or she can generally pick up another Nokia product and use it straight away.'
Lloyd adds that Nokia's consistent message and an 'honest, unpatronising' approach to consumers in its communications have helped the brand to become trusted.
CASE STUDY - NESCAFE
Nescafe gained a 54% share of vote in the coffee category, the same score as last year, making it the most trusted brand in the sector for the fourth year running. This is despite the ongoing decline in instant coffee consumption and the rise in popularity of fair-trade brands.
The Nestle-owned brand, founded in 1938, finished ahead of Kenco (17%) and Douwe Egberts (4%). However, fair-trade brand Cafedirect scored highly when consumers were asked about strong brand image, and Tesco's own-brand coffee was highest for value.
According to Georgia Field, marketing director for Nescafe, the brand's high trust levels stem not only from its reputation as the original instant coffee brand, but also from its innovations in the coffee sector, such as the introduction of freeze-dried beans.
In addition, its high levels of trust in the UK have been helped by its advertising, which, says Field, has always 'presented the brand as part of the fabric of British culture. From actor Gareth Hunt shaking the beans to recent ads using tabloid stars such as Denise Van Outen, the ads have created mini-playlets of British life'.
Field adds that Nescafe's recent marketing has been focused on product quality and its patented technology, as the brand sees these as central to its trusted status.
CASE STUDY - KELLOGG
Kellogg is the most trusted breakfast cereal brand for the fourth consecutive year, with a 59% share of the category - the highest score of any brand in the Reader's Digest survey. It came in ahead of Weetabix and Nestle.
Trust has been fundamental to the development of the Kellogg brand. Founded in the US in 1906, the company can trace its origin back to a healthy-eating philosophy. Founder WK Kellogg famously believed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, and that diet played an important role in a healthy lifestyle. Kellogg also led the way in providing nutritional, recipe and product information on packaging.
Although recently the company has been criticised over the levels of sugar and salt in some of its products, it has now launched several initiatives aimed at reinforcing this trust - for example, its 'Walking for health' pedometer promotion and a reduced-sugar version of Frosties.
A spokeswoman for Kellogg emphasises the company's role in educating consumers about a balanced diet. She adds that the brand's trusted status lies in 'understanding the needs of our consumers and providing a range of brands in our portfolio to best meet their individual requirements'.
CASE STUDY - COLGATE
Colgate has increased its share of the toothpaste category from 50% last year to 53%, beating off competition from Macleans (12%) and Sensodyne (9%).
As with many brands that score highly on trust, Colgate has longevity on its side. Parent company Colgate-Palmolive was founded in the US in 1806 and produced its first toothpaste in 1873. The brand's TV advertising has built on its high levels of consumer trust since the 60s, when its 'Ring of confidence' commercials showed the lasting benefits of using Colgate.
John Revess, marketing manager for oral care at Colgate-Palmolive, says that Colgate's consistent quality, combined with the fact that the brand is endorsed by the dental profession, is crucial when it comes to trust.
'Toothpaste is a product that consumers put in their mouths, so trust is paramount,' he explains. 'Consumers know they are not qualified to know the pathology of their own teeth, so they put their trust in a manufacturer that will deliver.'
Revess adds that, because trust is so fundamental in the toothpaste category, quality is the paramount virtue, while value is a less important attribute. 'Consumers are prepared to pay the right price for the right product,' he says.
MOST TRUSTED BRANDS 2005
Category Brand Share I use the
of vote brand (%)
Airline British Airways 45 43
Analgesic Nurofen 24 84
Bank Lloyds TSB 14 95
Breakfast cereal Kellogg 59 88
Camera Canon 21 62
Car Ford 16 62
Car hire Hertz 39 17
Coffee Nescafe 54 84
Cosmetics Boots 23 64
Cough/cold remedy Beechams 22 79
Credit card Barclaycard 17 87
Food retailer Tesco 39 77
Haircare Head & Shoulders 14 77
Holidays Thomson 24 34
Household cleaner Cif 25 87
Indigestion remedy Rennie 40 54
Insurance Norwich Union 14 74
Internet AOL 13 80
Kitchen appliance Hotpoint 15 79
Margarine/butter Flora 24 88
Mobile phone Nokia 57 79
Mortgage lender Halifax 24 50
Optician Specsavers 40 67
PC maker Dell 35 46
Pet food Whiskas 25 56
Petrol retailer Tesco 24 95
Shoe retailer Clarks 48 70
Skincare Nivea 20 73
Soap powder Persil 32 88
Soft drink Coca-Cola 31 83
Suncare Boots 29 69
Tea PG Tips 26 83
Toothpaste Colgate 53 85
Utility British Gas 22 82
Vitamins Seven Seas 14 54
METHODOLOGY: Reader's Digest conducted its Trusted Brands 2005 survey
across 14 countries in Europe. The UK survey was conducted online for
the first time, while a postal methodology was used in all other
countries. Respondents were sampled from the Reader's Digest consumer
database. In total, it analysed 24,832 questionnaires in 12 languages.
'Winners' are the brand in each category that received the greatest
number of votes, and share of vote is based on the total number of
respondents able to name a trusted brand in the sector. Across Europe,
respondents mentioned 114,810 different brand names and 363,740 votes
were cast. A full report of the UK survey is available from Reader's
Digest, priced £200. Contact 020 7715 8400.
This article was first published on Marketing