Brand Assurance. What’s it all about?

In a transparent future, brands are going to need much deeper assurance. A presentation I made this week unpicks the sub...

March 5, 2008

In a transparent future, brands are going to need much deeper assurance. A presentation I made this week unpicks the subtle links between such disparate trends as social media, corporate social responsibility, product regulation and buyer-driven marketplaces.

Lying behind this (too?) wide-ranging presentation is a much simpler narrative, well explained on the day by the other Tim (Wilson).His logic runs, as follows: “Why should I, the punter believe your brand claims?”. What brand assurance do you provide?In the first branding age, of Brand Opacity, this brand assurance was provided by the medium (TV advertising). Supply-side promises like Carlsberg’s ‘probably the best lager’ and Gillette’s ‘the best a man can get’ were the norm, and were widely swallowed (the claim that is, not the razor). As scepticism rose further, more specific demand-side benefits were needed to back up these claims: “8 out of ten cats prefer Whiskas” etc etc Again, the brand voice was strong enough to carry the day.

As scepticism continued to escalate though, some form of evidence was required to respond to curious consumers: ‘Marie Claire says its the best'; ‘Tiger Woods uses one'; ‘The British Skincare foundation endorses it’. However these techniques are just holding back a tide of transparency (bad metaphor, I know – floodllights perhaps?). Anyhow, Brand Translucency has arrived and it affects more than just the buyer. A wide variety of stakeholders increasingly distrust and want to interrogate the quality of brand claims – particularly claims which imply corporate ethics.The fact is that no form of paid endorsement certainly will wash for ethical or environmental decisions that imply complex processes or corporate practices.

As AccountAbility discovered last year, celebrities are actually less trustworthy than civil servants when it comes to ethical or environmental promises. As brands seek to make more complex, supply-side claims they need more complex forms of assurance: Labelling, backed by internal management systems and regulatory standards are the start-point, but third party authentication is increasingly critical.To this end, Super-Translucent brands like ‘FairTrade’ and ‘Organic’ have stakeholder assurance standards as the very heart of their brand claims. And a few non-assurance brands (Body Shop, Patagonia, Aveda, innocentdrinks and co.) have been able to make strong claims for their products and retain the brand credibility to shore up trust through evidence-backed storytelling. As Patagonia’s footprint chronicles invites us to lead an ‘examined life’ and matches it by offering a microscope on its own products.

However, even these great purposeful, story-telling brands are not safe today. Their very transparency invites us to look deeper and our expectations are outstripping their ability to deliver the evidence we need.Using opacity-age persuasion techniques, to support new transparency-age promises about environmental impact or social participation just creates brand dissonance. It will be eventually interpreted by stakeholders as a form of brand hypocrisy. As inconsistent information permeates around the fringes of the these translucent brands, stakeholders will consider themselves free to pick holes in their reputation.

As wonderful as Body Shop and innocentdrinks are at storytelling, the only way for them to survive long term is to embrace and lead a third wave: Brand Transparency.

While others paper over the cracks of their environmental credentials to embrace translucency, these original translucency pioneers must charge on, where stakeholders are leading them. These brands (often appearing as NGOs, industry hubs, certification bodies, or good old true visionaries) will be the first to embrace fully-fledged brand assurance programmes to match and exceed stakeholders’ expectations over time…transparency demands it.  

These are the brands Glasshouse will be working with.