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Industry Contributor 10 Jun 2020 - 3 min read

Trust me, I’m an [established] brand…challengers now challenged

By Brent Smart, CMO

Don’t tell me you’re funny, tell me a joke.

Sage advice from a grisly copywriter when I was starting out in the ad business. And the same goes for trust; it’s a do thing, not a say thing. Don’t know about you, but I don’t really trust a brand that tells me to trust it.

I love Rachel Botsman’s definition of trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown”. We couldn’t possibly be dealing with more unknown right now. Trusted brands are one of the few things that give us certainty and stability in a world that is anything but.

Data from Bain shows that since Covid hit, there has been a swing away from challenger brands back to incumbent brands. In Jan-Feb this year, challenger brands were capturing on average 35% of the growth across 46 categories globally. Cut to Mar-Apr and that’s down to 5%. Maybe it’s about scale and access to distribution; looking at the research I’m seeing, there seems to be a bigger factor at play. Trust.

Recently Roy Morgan published its list of the Most Trusted Brands in Australia during the Covid lockdown, based on survey data for the month of April, and it makes for some interesting reading.

Bunnings took out the number one spot. I remember thinking back in March that shit was getting real when Bunnings announced it would be stopping its iconic sausage sizzles. But that’s not all it had to rethink. Bunnings transformed its customer experience at astonishing pace, implementing local delivery, click-and-collect and drive-and-collect to maximise customer safety without sacrificing customer service. Brand trust went up and that was good for business, with sales growth in April running ahead of the 5.3% growth rate it saw in the December half, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Woolworths came in at number two on the list and like Bunnings, it was also quick to pivot its business to address new customer needs. Uber home delivery, Perspex screens for staff and customer safety and the brilliant Basics Box for the vulnerable.

Bunnings and Woolworths acted with the sort of empathy and adaptability that we now demand from brands – if we are able to completely adapt the way we are living and working, brands can do the same. Leading insights agencies The Lab and Nature teamed up to get a deeper understanding of what Australians value from brands right now. They found that adaptability has certainly risen in importance, but as our survival instincts have kicked in, safety has become the thing we value most.

That could help explain the strong performance of Qantas, coming in at #3 on the brand trust list. Qantas wasn’t able to adapt its brand experience nor even protect its employees, but it is a brand synonymous with safety, not just for Rainman but for most Australians.

And quick humble brag, the NRMA brand that I am privileged to work on was the nation’s fifth most trusted brand, despite being sold in only two states.


The biggest surprise was the names missing from the list

Not an Amazon, Google or Apple to be seen. Not even our local tech darling Atlassian. Facebook made the list, but at the wrong end, as the second most distrusted brand in Australia (just above AMP).

We’re so used to seeing these tech brands dominate brand rankings. Take Brand Finance’s Global 500 that ranks the world’s most valuable brands, this year ranking Amazon number one, followed closely by Google and Apple; a staggering half a trillion dollars of brand value between them.

Brand value and brand trust are very different things. Sure, goodwill is part of any brand valuation, but future revenue streams are a bigger contributor, and these tech brands have gargantuan revenues that continue to grow. Trust on the other hand isn’t about revenue or growth, and according to WARC, technology is the only sector to see a significant decline in trust globally since 2012.

Is it because these tech brands lack heritage? No doubt that helped some of the brands on the most trusted list, like Qantas and NRMA. But number 4 on the list and last year’s most trusted brand overall, Aldi, doesn’t have a rich Australian history; this beloved German supermarket arrived here in 2001. And while Bunnings may date back to a sawmill run by two brothers in Perth in the 1880s, the big box format it is famous for didn’t appear on the East Coast of Australia until 1994. That’s the same year Amazon started.


When it comes to brand building, tech brands get all traditional

It seems that once these tech businesses get to a certain size, they realise that to get to the next level of scale they need to start investing in their brands. The outdoor sites start going up. The Superbowl spots. But curiously, they don’t buy more digital ad units.

Apple is one of the world’s biggest tech brands, not one of the world’s biggest digital ad spenders. In fact, digital is a small part of its media mix, with the bulk of spend behind television and out-of-home. The real gamechanger for Apple was when it opened its own brick-and-motor stores, that now deliver the kind of profit per square foot that most retailers only dream of.  That all sounds a bit traditional and analogue, doesn’t it?

Amazon created one of my absolute favourite pieces of branding. Not its famous website, but that beautiful smile printed on every box it delivers. Generating billions of positive brand impressions every single day, it doesn’t cost Amazon an extra cent. A genius but very cardboard solution.

And when Facebook ran into brand reputation issues, could they be fixed in its own feed? Did it create lots of Instagram stories? No, it turned to television and out-of-home.

You see, trust is an emotional thing and digital advertising is a rational thing. According to the IAB, of the $9.3 billion digital ad spend in Australia last year, around $1.7 billion went into digital video, which is a lot of emotional storytelling potential. That still leaves more than 80% of digital spend in this country going to search and display, which by definition are more rational and transactional. Great at targeting the right customers who are ready to buy, not great at building brands.


The art of the “and”

I’m not trying to bash digital advertising. It definitely has an important role to play and I spend plenty on it. These things aren’t binary. It’s not about digital or traditional, being a modern marketer or an old-school marketer, you don’t need to be in one camp or the other.

As I pointed out, the world’s most successful tech businesses are also building their brands in the physical world in traditional ways.

It’s about “and” not “or”. Digital and traditional, brand and performance, long and short. The art is in the “and” and getting the balance right.

And maybe “and” is also the secret to brand trust. Sure, deliver the transformational benefits of a great digital experience. And think about the opportunity to deliver positive human experiences, not all the time, but at moments that matter.

That’s what the brands on this most trusted list do so well, they deliver human experiences that are more distinctive and memorable than just another website or app. The sausage sizzle, the Reindeer Carrots at Christmas, the letter to Alan Joyce (and his reply), saving the koalas. It’s what the stores do for Apple, parks for Disney, hosts for Airbnb. It’s REI shutting its stores on Black Friday and people freaking out when they couldn’t order a Whopper.

There is a physical, tactile, visceral and very human element to what makes these brands great. It’s the things these brands do that changes how we feel about them. They feel more human and that’s why we trust them, because we trust people more than we trust corporations. Until they give us a free sausage in bread. 

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Brent Smart, CMO


Brent Smart is the Chief Marketing Officer at insurance giant IAG, managing brands including NRMA Insurance and CGU. Under his leadership, NRMA has become the most awarded financial services brand in the world for creativity and effectiveness (2020 WARC Rankings). He spent 20 years in the ad business, his last agency job was CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York. When it comes to brands and creativity, he has an opinion
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