In brands we trust

Written by Suhel Seth | Updated: Dec 2 2004, 05:30am hrs
There is this huge debate about how brands establish the kernel of trust and that becomes the touchstone of engagement between the consumer and the company. But do we also realise how delicate this whole relationship based on trust is and can be

Trust is perhaps the most dangerous attribute for a brand to peg its existence on. Trust is rarely rational: it is almost always emotional and it should be. Which is why the tools of measurement and acceptance are almost always situational. The fact that people continue to drink Coca-Cola in our country (the pesticide issue apart) establishes the emotional connect that consumers have with brands, despite the rabble- rousing in certain quarters and the same is true of brands like Cadburys and Colgate.

Brands in the Indian domain have rarely used trust as the peg only because they would rarely be believed. If The Indian Express were to print an investigative story, the chances are it would be believed more than, say, another paper. But that is only because the Express has done more than bandy about a slogan called Journalism of courage: the brand has actually lived the credo, as have the people working there. Which is why there is a certain credibility that trust brands enjoy.

ITC has for years enjoyed the trust of smokers as their hotels have enjoyed the patronage of the dal Bukhara lover. But that is not because someone else cant do it better. Trust can and always is experiential: it is, perhaps, the only brand kernel that cannot be bandied about either through buzz marketing or word-of-mouth. Another fine example is HDFC, which today is synonymous with trust as, not quite strangely, is the Reserve Bank of India.

Trust brands have yet another birthmark: they quickly move from being corporations to institutions: and this transition is critical if you want values to be transplanted that are bereft of the people running the organisation on that day. Which is why the Tatas will go on to celebrate 200 years of trust after another 100 years since the values which go on to create trust are deeply entrenched in the way people think and feel as part of that business group.

What is worrying, however, is how many Indian companies can really, and truthfully, own the trust badge in the real sense. And trust goes beyond defined stakeholders. It is not about your employees and your shareholders: it is about the community. There is no question that in the pantheon of companies across the world, brands like Coca-Cola will still be trusted as will be the WalMarts, not to mention financial brands such as Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. Not because they havent made mistakes: they certainly have. But there has been an honesty in admitting to these which, at times, even some smart companies dust under the carpet, lest analyst recommendations suddenly change from buy to sell.

Are organisations going out to carve trust marks for themselves Are they investing enough in communities which they do not necessarily transact business with Look at what the Tatas are doing in Jamshedpur with adult literacy, or with the girl child. Or, for that matter, how ITC is helping the Indian farmer realise his true potential: both professionally and emotionally. It is this that will make organisations stand apart, and these are the social audits that brands must conduct with ease and regularity.

Trust, as an attribute, does more than give the brand a sheen. It gives what every brand strives for: a place of respect in the hearts and minds of the consumer. And it is this trust that needs to be established by companies.

It is a myth to believe that the attribute of trust best suits companies which are more in the consumer domain than others. A Hindustan Lever needs to establish trust as much as perhaps Wipro does and they need to do this not to win business awards and accolades for their management, but also because respect is a huge recruitment magnet and a differentiator to boot. It is this differentiation that corporate India must seek out, for it is this that is sorely lacking.

Corporate governance and transparency are interesting words to bandy about at seminars and such-like. The heart of the matter is in how you embellish the real purpose of being as an organisation and, that can only be when you have earned the respect of those around you, and the circle is much wider than you think it is!

The trust earned by the Bajajs and the Tatas will be difficult to emulate in one lifecycle of any company. It has to be earned through hard work and by dint of courage which, at times, wilts under typical Indian conditions. It is this wilting that needs to cease. It is this rot that we, in corporate India, need to stem.

A billion people deserve many more trust brands than they already have.

The writer is the CEO of Equus Redcell Advertising and can be reached at