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  Building Confidence in Your Brand   Building Confidence in Your Brand  Randall Frost  
Building Confidence in Your Brand Unlike confidence, trust always involves a calculated risk of disappointment. Before we can trust someone or something, we must first conclude that the likelihood of our being rewarded in any subsequent interaction exceeds that of being disappointed. Entering a relationship based on trust typically requires that we act on less than perfect information and without the guarantees of legal contracts. While confidence is based on strong evidence, trust rests on limited evidence.

In an essay, the cultural anthropologist Keith Hart considered how social contracts evolve in transitional societies, especially ones undergoing major economic change. Hart concluded that personal trust may not be the most efficient basis for economic relationships in such societies because agreements based on faith (those based on no or little evidence) or confidence are subject to stronger sanctions (Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relationships, Basil Blackwell, 1988).

Hart's findings are particularly revealing when applied to the evolution of consumer attitudes toward brands. Prior to the nineteenth century, most people purchased the goods they could not produce from shopkeepers whom they knew personally. But with the onset of mass migrations into cities more than a century ago, large numbers of people suddenly found themselves without traditional bases for making decisions about consumer goods.

Brands, which initially appeared in response to concerns about adulterated or substandard merchandise, gave consumers the assurance they sought about the quality of unfamiliar merchandise. But they also had the effect of increasing economic efficiency. By replacing trust at the relatively inefficient personal level (between shopkeeper and customer) with a more efficient economic trust (between brand and consumer), brands effectively underwrote a new economic relationship.

But that relationship has evolved into something quite different today. Wally Olins, chairman of branding consultancy Saffron, explains, "In the 1870s and 1890s, most products were not necessarily reliable if they were not branded. Today, because the branded product is more or less reliable, we take it on trust the fact that the product is going to work okay. Of course we trust them; if we didn't trust them we wouldn't buy them."

(That argument does not apply to service brands. Service brands are about personal interactions, and therefore involve personal rather than economic trust. For a service brand to be successful, everyone in the organization must be signed up to the brand. Says Olins, "The service brand is a much weaker brand, and people have much less faith in it, trust in it, confidence in it, than they do in the product brand.")

Again, as our sense of risk diminishes, our trust in brands is replaced by something more akin to confidence. But if providing a basis for trust in products is no longer the raison d'être of branding, what other expectations might we have of brands?

According to Olins, consumers now seek out brands that give them a feeling that they are doing something related to their sense of self. "That is why kids walk around with a Gap T-shirt or with a Nike polo jacket," he says. "Why would we want to put a symbol of trainers on our persons? Why would we want to advertise that? What would be the point of it? Only in order to somehow or other give ourselves a sense of identity with others who wear the same kind of badge."

Many highly successful brands, including Gap and Nike, attempt to convey simple, complex and subtle emotions that override cultural barriers, and their emotional content may be so powerful that it inspires loyalty beyond rationality. Because there can be no rational basis for evaluating brand promises that appeal to our emotions, any economic contracts we make with these brands must be based on emotion—or faith.

Olins continues, "I think there are certain types of products—and certainly Nike is one of them, that create in some people that level of intensity. The object is not what they worship. It is the symbolism behind the object. In the case of Nike, it's the idea of winning, not about shoes.... If you identify with something in which you have faith, you acquire a sense of self belief. You can identify with others who share the same view. It's almost mystical. You don't need any proof because you just do."

So brands, which used to be about trust, have now become symbols of our faith because we have so much confidence in them. In terms of encouraging economic contracts, trust is relegated to a relatively minor role alongside faith and confidence.

But if trust is on the way out, it is presumably getting a push from other quarters as well. Consider the entry of global brands into local markets, for example. They may at the outset be at a disadvantage with respect to local brands because the latter can appeal to local consumer trust. But since it takes time to build trust, global brands may prefer to enter new markets with emotional promises rather than with assurances of trustworthiness.

Jacques Chevron, a partner in JRC&A Consulting in LaGrange, Illinois, explains, "Brands are rooted in the trust that the consumers place in them. They are what result from consistent behavior over time: Predictability, understanding, comfort and the trust that they create. Newcomers don't have this. Some are in the same situation as the used-car salesman who says ‘Trust me' to generate comfort. It doesn't work well."

This barrier may apply especially to global food brands. Says Chevron, "Coca-Cola and McDonald's are products that originated in a young country where there were few established traditions for drinking and eating. That made it easier for them to get a share of the American stomach. Europe and Asia have long traditions in eating and drinking. People overseas often define their national or regional identity by the food they eat and by the drinks they swallow. Coke and McDonald's have to fight those alternatives to get their share of stomachs and they may never enjoy the same success they found in the virgin US market."

US food brands, facing resistance from local consumers who on one hand do not wish to feel colonized, have succeeded in gaining market access abroad by appealing to consumers' wish for a taste of America. Emotional appeals to global citizenship are particularly well suited to breaking down cultural barriers.

Other global brands have successfully penetrated local markets by appealing to local consumer aspirations. Says Martin Roll, founder and CEO of VentureRepublic, a branding advisory with offices in Singapore and Denmark, "For a long time, most of Asia was still a developing continent, with low per capita income, rampant poverty and low disposable income. In this scenario, the elite few purchased western and branded goods as a symbol of prestige and social class. This led the mass to aspire to purchase those brands."

But there is also growing evidence that increasing numbers of people today are unwilling to engage in social or economic contracts based on trust. Globalization has arguably contributed to a loss of social connectedness in many developed and undeveloped nations by disrupting traditional employment patterns, and people who have seen their social networks disrupted may be reluctant to trust others. Meanwhile the traditional family has been under assault by other social changes, and young people may find it difficult to even learn to trust. For many people, relationships based on faith or confidence may feel more comfortable than those based on trust.

But where is it all headed? Roll conceded that he believes there is currently a fine line of distinction between faith, trust and confidence. Perhaps, with trust on the way out, we will eventually see faith and confidence draw closer together, leaving us with the interesting possibility of being able to know without knowing.

But in the meantime, the diminished role of trust in economic contracts has arguably helped consumers but placed a heavier burden on brands. By choosing to rely on confidence and faith rather than on trust, consumers end up exchanging an element of risk for certainty and high probability that their expectations will be met. But the consequences of loss of confidence far outweigh those of loss of trust. Loss of trust leads to avoidance, but loss of confidence results in withdrawal. And loss of faith, well that's another story.    



Randall Frost, a freelance writer based in Pleasanton, California, is the author of The Globalization of Trade. His work has appeared in Worth, The New England Financial Journal, CBSHealthWatch and a variety of educational publications.

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