For the first time in history, Americans don’t believe their children will enjoy a better life.
This is bad news for business. The currency that sustains brands, businesses and governments is trust – and it’s never been in shorter supply. If the American consumer wrote a letter to management, it would go like this:
Disintermediation and deregulation haven’t worked out very well for us consumers, lately. Okay, we got used to being our own travel agent, health-plan manager and tech support. But now we’re feeling insecure. We don’t like being hostage to hiccups in the global economy. There’s salmonella in our spinach. (Or is it the tomatoes?). Oil clogged the Gulf of Mexico. Russians are trying to steal our identity. Our parents’ arthritis medicine turns out to cause heart attacks. Our home and our 401k are worth a lot less, and my job is still up for grabs. Birds fall from the sky and dolphins wash upon the beaches. Oh yeah, scientists say the planet is on fire.
Now, what was it you were trying to sell me?
Marketers are buffeted by the same forces. Traditional advertising models are failing just as consumers are withdrawing their trust. Everyone’s looking for a hard spot in the swamp.
So what’s a wise marketer to do?
One new model to explore is what I’d call “re-integration”. In short, it amounts to standing accountable for more of the value-chain than competitors. Many of Fortune magazine’s “most admired companies” of do this, starting with Apple. In the 1990s, Apple’s determination to control both hardware and software design was a competitive disadvantage. Now it’s their ace. The company delivers an intuitively seamless platform for computing, communications, and entertainment, along with one-to-one technical support by appointment at its retail stores. They put the world back together for consumers.
Target earns admiration for taking care of customers body and soul. The company’s design panache extends to pharmacy packaging that makes medicines safer, and Target leads the retail sector in community giving: nearly 3% of revenues. This seems like odd behavior for a discounter. Traditional price competition impels marketers to do less for consumers – (Wal-Mart, airlines) – but price is only a fractional component of trust. Reintegration involves doing more for customers. Offering end-to-end accountability for the infernal complexities of IT establishments, including for competitors’ products, is now IBM’s biggest business. Automakers are well-positioned to serve more of the value chain, but don’t, except on a sporadic basis for promotional purposes. Consumers have seen offers for extended warranties, routine maintenance, roadside assistance, and even gasoline price support – but no automaker has taken on the role of personal transportation supplier to the consumer.
They’re all stuck in the hardware business.
Trust flourishes when each party in a relationship has an obvious stake in the other’s success. An unbranded example is the growth of Community-Supported Agriculture contracts, in which urban consumers subscribe a farmer’s produce in advance. CSA members get direct-from-the-field delivery and the farmer sells his product before he plants.
Banking used to work this way. Local lenders and mortgage holders knew each other and neither could franchise away their obligation. Today’s financial consumers don’t understand how this shared waterhole was poisoned or why what they thought was “their” bank can’t help them.American Express, the only consumer financial outfit in Fortune’s most admired 20, makes a practice of interceding on consumers’ behalf. “Use our card and we’ll go to bat for you” is their promise, and they do. Being a cardmember counts for something beyond the transaction. As at Costco, that word, member, is a clue to the new model for marketing.
Reintegration is more than an implicit agreement on “brand values”, it is a fundamental contract between the marketer and consumer, in which each has an obviousand explicit stake in the other’s success.
In tough times, the brands we count on, and even revere, have four factors in common:
- Accountability for more of the value-chain than competitors
- An obvious stake in the customer’s success – and vice versa
- “Admirable” behavior in the public sphere
- Use of design to make brand values tangible at every customer interaction
Most of Fortune’s 20 most admired companies are design leaders. From the clean functionality of Google’s interface and P&G’s Swiffer, to the taut sheet-metal of BMW or UPS’s iconic, undauntable brown trucks, design helps make promises truth in the user’s everyday experience.
Marketers seeking trust need not only walk the talk, but erect what amounts to a medieval walled city around as much of the consumer’s life as they can serve: a safe space where potential dangers are held at bay, and that vendors themselves inhabit – sharing the risks as well as the profits of commerce.