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“Brands are part of the Big Society – because consumers make them so.
Those consumers expect to pay for good brands. Government should too”. These were the words of David Reed, Founder of the Data Governance Forum, proposing the motion “Brands should not be expected to build the Big Society for Free”, at the Debating Group debate on 21 March 2011 at the House of Commons.
The debate was sponsored by the Institute of Promotional Marketing and chaired by Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon.
David Reed pointed out that there are over 60,000 marketers in the UK, all focused on influencing consumer behaviour, using some of the most powerful tools of influence available.
This looks like an attractive resource to draw on if you are a Government needing to cut your budget without harming front-line services. Brands they work for already demonstrate many philanthropic dimensions or work for social good e.g. Quaker-owned brands like Quaker Oats, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Carrs Biscuits, Clark shoes; even historically Barclays and Lloyds. David Reed went on to cite the Co-operative driving Fairtrade, Waitrose and M&S leading free-range egg adoption and Marmite working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families on the Reading for Life campaign.
Trust in brands is high – according to a survey by Lansons Communications, 52% of consumers trust a brand against 30% who don’t use ‘trust’ in association with companies and 17% who don’t really trust companies any more. The most trusted brands are high street brands: M&S, John Lewis, Tesco and Boots. By contrast, trust in other professions and institutions is low. Politicians are the least trusted: 57% in the Co-op poll, followed by bankers (47%) and journalists. So should brands be lending that precious equity to the public sector? David Reed suggested that not unless there is a clearer answer to the question – what is in it for them? Tesco cannot just go to its shareholders and say, we’re opening a library in every supermarket. Any reduction in floorspace equals a reduction in sales, and the primary focus for brands is to generate profits. Indeed, companies are legally obliged to act in the sole interest of their shareholders.
This does not mean that brands are solely motivated by greed. One only has to look at the role played by BT, Sainsbury’s, NatWest and many others on Red Nose Day, at the Asda Foundation and the support it gives to charities and companies like Barclays which allow staff several days a year to do volunteer work on full pay. Corporately and at an individual level, brands and their staff have close links with society at large and their communities locally. In exchange for that, they are building that most valued commodity – trust. So much of the consumer’s life is wrapped up with brands, literally on a daily basis, that they are beholden to show more than just a commercial engagement. It is not the same with government. Governments are temporary. In four years time, the current administration could be out and a new one running the country with a new agenda and set of priorities. Where then for the brands which aligned themselves with the Big Society? What happens to a brand when it becomes politicised?