Building Trust: Engaging Through Your Brand

by | Jul 20, 2009


This week, Environmental Leader is presenting a five part series by Jonathan Ballantine entitled “Building Trust in Corporate Responsibility.”

Here is Part Two – “Engaging through your brand”

Some organizations may feel uncomfortable opening up for fear of criticism. Although, perhaps hard to take at the time, critical assessments are a valuable source of information that help progressive organizations adapt to changing market conditions.

Some argue that a brand’s image could be damaged in the stakeholder process. However, it is important to highlight the difference between brand and reputation management.

Captain Dean Plumb, Manager Strategy & Environment, British Airways, cleverly separates the two as having distinct owners. ¨Many organizations can control and manage their brand but it’s the stakeholders who own their reputation,” he said.

Cautious to remain focused on the core subject it is important to note the changing attitudes that are brewing. The last 12 months have opened many cracks in the walls around financial, political and business institutions, which is increasing the trend towards transparency, and is causing a profound discussion on the ¨business as usual¨ model.

Stefan Stern wrote an article in the Financial Times on the challenges of rebuilding trust – posing a highly topical question – ¨Is trust a renewable resource?¨ In agreeing with the basis of Stern’s article, few subjects are causing corporate leaders more anxiety right now than the question of trust. It is also not a natural part of business management, involving more of an emotional response. But, like most parts of business, it needs to be measured and proven to have an effect on the bottom line.

Using Plumb’s earlier comment, then large organizations should perhaps be viewed more as brand custodians where the reputation and image of the company is managed by the perceptions of its stakeholders, rather than the individual company. It is possible to conclude from both Stern and Plumb’s comments that stakeholder engagement should be at the heart of rebuilding trust.

The linkage between brand and corporate responsibility is becoming ever stronger. Look closely at the benefits of a company that is viewed as ¨sustainable¨ and the generic benefits of branding, and they are inseparable.

Sustainability can:

  • act as a differentiator between two companies
  • encourage loyalty
  • help attract talent

Branding can:

  • act as a differentiator between two companies
  • encourage loyalty
  • help attract talent

Santiago Gowland, Vice President of Brand Development and Global Corporate Responsibility at Unilever, discussed Unilever’s ¨brand imprint¨ program and the social role of business in the 21st century.

Brand Imprint (see image above) is a tool that helps facilitate brand innovation through the integration of social, economic and environmental considerations. ¨We were intent on examining the relationship between a brand and society, not just the psychological aspirations of consumers,” he said.

Stakeholders view Unilever as a leader in sustainability and recognize the company for its commitment to address issues at the brand level. Gowland believes that brands can play an important role in educating consumers, which in turn help influence sustainable behavior.

In a similar vein, Sally Uren of Forum of the Future in a recent article suggests that global brands could become ¨agents for transformational change¨ and that they are better placed to lead the charge towards a low-carbon world than government. Provided that consumer / stakeholder engagement is at the heart of brand innovation then they may have a critical role in building trust through the repetition of promises.

Many organizations are confronted with the challenge of restoring public trust and/or stakeholder confidence. The brand is a powerful tool that creates two-way conversations between consumers and sellers.

For MAN Group, reputation and trust are at the heart of their understanding of the importance of corporate responsibility and their brand, hence their preferred definition responsible behavior.

Rob Challis, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility at Man Group, described responsible business as being routed in four fundamentals “integrity, excellence, performance and innovation.”

“Of these core principles, integrity is fundamental, for without it the contribution of the other three principles will be diminished and eroded,” he said.

For many organizations, particularly the banking sector, the first step of building trust is to understand why they aren’t trusted. An interesting article appeared in The Independent (24th June) which highlighted how banks are failing to learn the lessons of the crisis and that a ¨business as usual¨ attitude has emerged. Or should that read ¨make hay while the sun shines¨ attitude has returned?

Many organizations need to address both short and long term issues in order to rebuild trust – both of which will require a greater degree of transparency. For the banking sector this could be on big-ticket items such as the balance between risk and reward and competence, to specific issues such as bank charges.

“Our stakeholders’ perceptions can easily be influenced by events in our sector or the broader market. We believe this validates our commitment to total transparency in the ways we inform stakeholders about our business and the values that underpin it,” Challis said. The major inherent problem for many organizations is that they believe they know why they aren’t trusted and fail to test their suppositions on real stakeholders.

In answering Stern’s question “is trust a renewable resource?” – for many organizations the answer is no.

Read Part One of the series here.

Jonathan Ballantine is a European-based business engagement specialist – advising private sector firms, business consultants and NGOs on corporate responsibility issues, including brokering collaborative partnerships between business and NGOs, stakeholder engagement and outreach communications.

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