Parent to child or adult to adult? Historically, brands had a parent/child relationship with consumers. Brands knew what consumers wanted and needed, and when brands communicated, consumers accepted their word. But over recent decades, consumers have begun to question brands more, and to turn to other sources of information such as pressure groups, the media, and regulators. In short, they have grown to expect a new type of adult-to-adult relationship.
Yet, neither really knows how to make such a relationship work. Brands have lost their unique position of authority and no one has taken their place. Consumers simply don't know who to trust any more - not all adult-to-adult relationships are based on absolute equality. Sometimes one side does know more than the other. Sometimes even adults need teachers.
Brands have a viable 'educator' role across many spheres. When introducing new products and new technologies they need to explain the benefits, and how to access these benefits. They are also deep repositories of technical information: about the characteristics and attributes of raw materials, the science and technology used to process them, and so on. They should also be experts in the broader economic, environmental and social impacts of their supply chains.
On each of these fronts – products, processes and broader impacts – brands should be the first port of call for trusted, expert information, not only for consumers but for the media too; not only as a defence against unjustified criticism, but for positive reasons too. Having 'educator' status gives the brand added value: not only does it offer products worth buying, but information too.
Educator status won't come automatically, however. Undeniable vested interests – 'they would say that, wouldn't they?' – plus a history of advertising and PR spin have combined to undermine consumer trust in big brands, particularly in controversial areas such as corporate social responsibility. Benefit of the doubt often goes to hostile pressure groups instead.
This is a new brand battleground in its own right: for information as well as product integrity and quality. One that will have to be fought for, tooth and nail, issue by issue, over a long period of time. Partly it's a matter of communication style. How to explain and educate in a clear, engaging way without seeming condescending? But more fundamentally, it's a matter of credibility and trust.
Brands need to treat the information they produce as if it were a product: their reputation for trust and quality depends upon it. Developing quality new information should be given the same status as product R&D and NPD. Information errors should be given the same urgent priority as production errors: think of product recalls.
If necessary, both corporate culture and operational realities must be overhauled. That's because ultimately knowledge, integrity and business only flourish when they reinforce each other. If telling the truth is bad for your business, it's the business that's the problem, not the truth. Long term, the truth won't suffer from not being told. But the business will.
In a parent/child relationship, 'because I say so' is an acceptable answer to a child's questions. In an adult/adult relationship 'prove it' and 'justify yourself' are valid demands. 'Because I say so' is a sure-fire relationship destroyer.
Demonstrable integrity, quality, expertise: if this describes a product, but not all the information that surrounds the product, the equation doesn't add up. Earning the status of an educator brand is not only a defensive 'must' in the current climate of mistrust. It's also a huge opportunity – to deepen brands' uniquely privileged position within consumers' lives.