"Trust everyone, but cut the cards yourself."
You don't have to be a curmudgeon like W.C. Fields, the source of the comment above, to distrust just about everyone--especially big companies--these days. There has never been an erosion of consumer confidence like the one that marketers are experiencing. Consumers are cynical and becoming more so every day.
That's not about to change soon: Corporate troubles and scandals around the globe and across industries will have a lasting impact on the way people view big business and big brands. It should have a lasting effect on the way companies name and position their brands too.
This crisis of confidence coincides with an explosion of companies rolling out brands with names that boast purity, durability and integrity. Think about Honest Tea, Pur water filters and FreeBird organic, free-range chickens. But this is risky stuff in the branding business nowadays. India's Satyam Computer Services, which imploded this month, took its name from the Sanskrit word for "trust," a move that's become a knee slapper at this point, or a forehead slapper for those whose jobs were affected. And Aloha Airlines, in business since 1956, became associated with only one of the word's two meanings--goodbye, that is--when it ceased operations in 2008.
Companies must remember: A brand, for every intent and purpose, is a promise. A promise that it will help the user make (or save) money, look better or feel great. The Dove brand promises to make women feel gorgeous even if they aren't supermodels. Volvo, of course, vows to deliver your family safely from Point A to Point B. Honest Tea suggests that the ingredients are natural and free from preservatives.
The underpinning of all these brand promises is trust. Consumers have been primed to trust that a brand will deliver on its promise--and trust that the company behind it will be there at the end of the day, year or decade to make good on it should anything errant occur. Trust is the secret sauce that sells a brand. If people don't trust a brand, it doesn't matter how much cleaner, safer or richer its promise implies they will become if they buy it. Without trust, the brand's foundation cracks. The infrastructure breaks down. The cards, if you will, fall. It doesn't matter who has cut them.
Marketers today need to take a close look at their brand's promise and double down on ensuring its delivery. They need to make sure everyone associated with that brand understands its promise and understands how to bring it to life. To regain consumer trust and to be perceived as credible, everything connected to that brand and every branded experience must be consistent.
Sure, it's tempting to pitch a brand's quality and durability, especially in uncertain times when consumers crave reassurance. But it has never been riskier to do this: We're living in an age of transparency, where everybody can see and hear everything almost instantly. One wrong move, one product fault, and the word is out. Bad news travels faster than ever before, be it through the ubiquity of YouTube, Facebook, blogs or "tweets."
Just ask Satyam. Or consider Kryptonite, the bicycle lock maker with a name that suggested only Superman might be able to break its locks. The company looked pretty ridiculous in 2004 when a very un-Superman-like bicycle delivery guy posted a YouTube video that showed how anyone could jimmy the U-shaped Kryptonite lock with a ballpoint pen.
I would argue that a company or brand with a name that is a made-up word--take Kodak or Xerox--or a silly but memorable moniker like Google or Yahoo! is better in these times. Even a straightforward, utilitarian brand name such as General Dynamics is a safer bet.
Trust has always been the foundation of brand promises, and it will continue to be so. Marketers should demonstrate from this day forward that their company and their products are trustworthy. Eventually, consumers may even trust them again to "cut the cards." Until then, companies mulling names for a new company or brand should think twice before calling it SafeCo.