How to Build Trust in Your Brand, Part 2: Examine Your Motives

About ten years ago I was invited to New York to consult with an organization fearing for its future.  It once held a large segment of the market, but had watched that share  decline over a number of years.  The leadership team’s anxiety was high, and they called me because I had experience with their target market.  Though they’d asked me to town for a conversation, when I arrived it was obvious that they were secretly hoping I’d simply  step off the plane and deliver  a strategy for turn-around.   We did eventually get to some strategic planning.  But how we got there was the real lesson – for them and for me.

What I had not picked up on in our initial phone conversations was the sense of desperation in the organization.  When they invited me to come, they seemed concerned.  When I arrived in the conference room, there was something closer to panic, with one question dominating the discussion:  “How do we get our market share back?!?”   By which they meant, “How do we convince these people to return to our brand and keep us alive?”  The leadership’s perception was that their decline was essentially a marketing failure.  All they needed was an adjustment to their message.  And what they wanted from me was the answer:  What’s the new thing to say to this bunch so that they choose us?

At first I bought into their thinking.  They were so persuaded their marketing was the problem they persuaded me.  But a few hours into the conversation it was clear we were walking in well-worn circles.  And each time I suggested a new angle on the problem, that perhaps there was a deeper issue than marketing, the team rebelled.  Marketing, message, communication!    It was paralyzing.  For most of the day we made no progress. Finally, in some exasperation, I asked, “So who exactly exists for whom?  Do you exist – truly – to benefit your customers?  Or do they exist to provide for your need for success?  This is quite unclear to me.”

It quickly became clear to all of us.  The answer was the latter – customers existed to serve the organization; and this was at the heart of their decline.  What had begun with with the goal of providing services to clients had slowly transformed into an organization centered on the need for prestige. And customers could tell (we did several focus groups and this was a dominant theme).  Legacy customers often remained (lots of brand loyalty).  But new customers were looking elsewhere, recognizing that their best interests were no longer at this firm’s heart.  The brand had lost trust.

And what was so striking about this realization is that the organization was working feverishly in their marketing to communicate the exact opposite.  The “we are here for you” language was everywhere.  And yet customers could tell it was lip service.  The organization was only fooling itself.  It wanted to be customer focused, but what actually motivated them was being perceived as “successful” by their peers.  Customers were simply a means to that end.  It was a nearly fatal mistake.

The lesson I learned that day:  Building trust in our brand requires a constant examination of motives.  Who really exists for whom?  Are we in the business of making a genuine contribution to others?  Or do others exist merely to satisfy our need for success?  The distinction is critical, and it’s easy to deceive ourselves.  And mantras and mission statements about serving customer needs are no inoculation against becoming very self-interested.

Always remember that trust is granted only to those who consistently demonstrate that they value the needs of others.  If you want to build trust in your brand, ensure that an honest and regular examination of your motives is a core dimension of your corporate culture.

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