How brands can earn consumer trust

Everyone is spinning you a line—but truth can be found in unlikely places

Everyone is spinning you a line—but truth can be found in unlikely places



The Prime Minister has set the agenda for the coming New Zealand election as Trust with a capital T. In a world where you can’t rely on the people you once thought were unimpeachable, like Church and State, the bad news is that you can’t trust anyone. Or can you?

Advertising has long been considered to be unreliable or untrustworthy. In truth, that’s not true. Advertising is reliable. Broadcasters and publishers don’t compromise their revenues by permitting lies to be told. Every commercial played on air is vetted by an independent authority. You can’t just say what you want on TV in New Zealand—something McDonald’s has, quite rightly, pointed out in its own advertising.

Not only is everything uttered in a commercial on television vetted and approved before it goes to air by the august TCAB body (and TAPS for pharmaceuticals), it’s still open to censure and withdrawal if anyone reasonably objects to any part of it—or unreasonably.

Brands value their relationships with the people who buy them. It’s commercial suicide to lie or cheat consumers. We have long memories and wagging tongues (just ask Exxon or Sanlu).

Brands are, by and large, premised on trust. Unlike politicians, brands build long-term relationships with their constituents—rather than doing and saying anything that will expedite the their own power and position in the short term. There is a truism that nothing kills a bad product quicker than a good ad.

Recent events in New Zealand politics have shown that trust cannot be easily vested in a postmodern world where right is just an alternate version of wrong, depending on your ideology. It is a slippery, surreal, Lewis Carroll-meets-George Orwell nightmare.

How ironic, then, that advertising is changing its direction from sound bites to substance. Brands will no longer rely solely on vying for attention between the content; they will be the content, or at the least the producer of the content.

Brands will leverage their trustworthiness by setting aside direct selling messages and instead produce entertainment or information to help their customers understand and integrate brands into their lives.

Marketers have come to realise that consumers readily accept their products; arguing for the microscopic advantage of one brand over another doesn’t produce a return on marketing investment. The way to gain trust is to be a more useful part of the consumer’s world, rather than an invasion or interruption.

The same rules apply in the world of branded content as they do in creating any product: if it is good, an audience will be attracted to it. They will draw it towards them and share it with their friends. If it’s rubbish it will be rejected. That’s how the market works. We don’t do favours for brands.

The trend towards content is gathering momentum with the convergence of low-cost production and media. The premium once paid to buy and fill 30 seconds of TV airtime doesn’t make sense when anyone can own an entire channel, or publish a magazine or book. The buzzword of the 1990s, ‘disintermediation’, has proved to be one of the prophesies that actually came true.

In the US, Unilever has produced a campaign for the Suave brand directed at mothers, claiming that over 80 percent say they ‘let themselves go’ in motherhood. There are ads, but there are also short makeover movies online that show mums how to easily achieve a look. But wait, there’s more—a comedy series called ‘In the Motherhood’, starring Jenny McCarthy and Chelsea Handler. It is a sharp, precisely observed comedy that is as good as broadcast—and in some ways better, because it is unfettered by the restrictions of network television. The stories are translated from consumer-generated content.

Of course this trend is a retread. In the 1920s, radio serials were called soap operas because they were brought to you by a soap brand. BMW was probably the first of the new wave with its series of short movies directed by Hollywood leading lights like John Frankenheimer, Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee and starring then little-known actor Clive Owen. The Guy Ritchie film starring Madonna still circulates on the web nearly a decade later and is worth watching. Created by Fallon Advertising, the budgets were stupendous, but the cost of production was offset by the low cost of the media.

Technology has changed the shape of the media landscape. With open channels like the Internet where sponsored content is unfettered by the cost of distribution (a ratecard 30-second spot in New Zealand in prime-time will cost you about $10,000-$15,000), setting aside the model that requires frequency to build awareness. The reach will be considerable but the waste will also be high due to the relatively wide audience profile, so reaching large amorphous groups is still viable for those advertisers with the cash. Running a campaign over a period of time will cumulate the figures to a statistically acceptable level—always a trade-off between the numbers of the ‘target audience’ reached frequently enough for the short message to have been viewed.

Ultimately, branded content will be measured by its interest. People pay attention to what interests them. I’m predicting a whole lot more interest in developing content and that longer formats will redefine levels of trust in brands.

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