Signifying Trust
Signifying Trust

Signifying Trust

June 1 st 2002

A New Brand World: 8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century by Scott Bedbury with Stephen Fenichell (Toronto: Viking Press, 2002, 288 pp, $35.99)

While A New Brand World is written in an anecdotal style and wrapped around Bedbury's resume, it does overtly offer eight "principles" (go there):

  1. Relying on brand awareness has become marketing fool's gold—smart brands are more concerned with brand relevancy and brand resonance.
  2. You have to know it before you can grow it—most brands don't know who they are, where they've been and where they're going.
  3. Always remember the Spandex rule of brand expansion—just because you can doesn't mean you should.
  4. Great brands establish enduring customer relationships that have more to do with emotions and trust than with footwear cushioning or the way a coffee bean is roasted.
  5. Everything matters—even your restroom.
  6. All brands need good parents—unfortunately most brands come from troubled homes.
  7. Big is no excuse for being bad—truly great brands use their superhuman powers for good and place people and principles before profits.
  8. Relevance, simplicity, and humanity—rather than technology—will distinguish brands in the future.

I am not a business cynic.

Actually, I am not a cynic at all, not of any kind. Unlike the ancient cynics, I don't indulge in an ostentatious contempt for ease and pleasure, and unlike your common or garden variety contemporary cynic, I have quite a bit of faith in human sincerity and goodness—although, being a Calvinist, I am disappointed but not surprised when such faith turns out to be unfounded.

More than a quarter century ago, the neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol wrote that

everyone wants to be loved, and it always comes as a shock to discover that there are people who dislike you for what you really are rather than for what they mistakenly think you are... In this respect businessmen are as human—and as capable of self-deception—as anyone else.

I hope it's not too shocking for me to declare that I love business people—for what they really are.

Sometimes my love is requited, when a business gives me great service or a really fine product. Occasionally, I'm jilted by a business that makes me promises but spectacularly fails to deliver.

Most modern married people know that love starts with a spark—and then you have to work at it. The currency of marriage is trust (or troth, if slight archaisms make you smile). The same is true for the relationship between a business and its customers. As Texas car dealer Carl Sewell pointed out more than a decade ago: really valuable customers are Customers for Life (Pocket Books, 1998). But customers, not being bound by a marriage covenant, only stay with a business after that first purchase impulse because of earned trust.

The trust between a business and its customers is signified by its brand.

In his memoir-cum-manifesto A New Brand World, Scott Bedbury—the maven behind the Nike and Starbucks brands—gives us this broad definition:

A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the off-strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst product. It is defined by award-winning advertising as well as by the awful ads that somehow slipped through the cracks, got approved, and, not surprisingly, sank into oblivion. It is defined by the accomplishments of your best employee—the shining star in the company who can do no wrong—as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made. It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when placed on hold. For every grand and finely worded public statement by the CEO, the brand is also defined by derisory consumer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public, where they may stay for ever. As such you can't entirely control a brand. At best you can guide and influence it.

Bedbury expands on this by saying that

brands are living concepts that we hold in our minds for years. What goes into them is both logical and irrational. Some of the most lasting brand images are purely emotional—memories of exceptionally bad service, of a product that failed to deliver on its promise, or of one that exceeded our expectations and blew us away with its screaming performance. In our minds we store all the moments in time when a brand stopped us in our tracks and made us think deeply or inspired us. This is where we remember the brands that marked an important passage in our lives. Gerber baby food is an example. As a brand, Gerber consistently ranks among the most powerful on earth. It delivers trust where we most appreciate it.

The trustworthiness of a brand, or the lack thereof, evokes emotions that serve to connect us to the brand in a way that precedes reason. Bedbury writes that

great brands find relevant ways to tap the emotional drivers that already reside deep within each of us. Powerful emotional currents exist as part of the human condition. Human beings are in fact the most complex emotional concepts that God has created. Great filmmakers recognize this, and tell stories in a way that deliberately strikes a powerful emotional chord. Great films make you think and they make you feel. They can make you belly-laugh and they can make you cry in the dark of a movie theatre and sometimes both in the space of mere minutes. Great brands, if they are consistently good, accomplish this year after year, decade after decade, and sometimes for more than a century.

We live in a time of brand cynicism, epitomized by Naomi Klein's No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, 2000) and the savvy culturejamming magazine Adbusters. Since some big-brand companies do behave like bullies, and some brands break our hearts, No Logo and Adbusters have evoked powerful emotional responses from many of us—and, ironically, in the process have become powerful brands themselves.

Naomi Klein may be right when she claims that "in order to be successful, multinationals need to create a brand." She is not necessarily right when she claims that multinational businesses "turn people into brand tribes." It is not so surprising that in our time we form ourselves into brand tribes, devoted to a particular product. (I did a quick random survey in my office, and as a first response from the first three people I asked found: a Guinness beer drinker, a Coke—the soft drink—addict, and a Stabilo Sensor writer. Okay—so I am the Stabilo Sensor writer, and we are a small but worthy tribe.)

As our civilization continues to differentiate and individualize, our folk identities—being Dutch or German, Scottish or Irish—become ever more tenuous, our personal identities ever more complex. As we have a built-in need for integrity rather than fragmentation, we strive for ways in which to overcome this differentiation and individualization even as we enjoy their benefits.

There are many good and bad ways of overcoming our differences and making connections with others. One way is to turn back to our folk identities with reactionary fervour. Brand tribes is another way of connecting, and while some brand stewards may consciously cultivate such tribes, I guess it is more likely we, the customers, who use brands as low-commitment ways in which to identify with others and experience the frisson of belonging.

There is no denial that brands fail and that some brand stewards do evil under the banner of their brands. For such failure and evil, we appropriately grieve and rage. But this does not mean that brands as such are evil in a Manichaean sense. Brands are a possibility built into the design of economic life: they are the symbols of enduring relationships between business and its customers, and they are most true to their possibilities when they are cultivated, rather than neglected or abused.

Since brands signify a relationship, they are indeed only partly subject to cultivation by the business they represent—the value of a brand is infused into it by the many customers who use it as a promise to which they can hold its stewards. As such, brands are no better and no worse than the businesses they represent and the customers who trust them.

Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.


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