In brand we trust. About branding and integrity

In the spring of 1998 Connex (Note: the Romanian telecom player subsequently acquired by Vodafone) launched a campaign—I don’t know if you remember it, as it had short media exposure and was rather modest in appearance compared to other campaigns of the brand. Nevertheless, looking back with a bit more wisdom, I find that campaign astonishingly correct in a strategic sense!

That campaign was called “Count on me” and it was a testimonial of the Connex CEO, where he promised the best national coverage and best quality of sound (basically what mattered the most in that stage of the newly born mobile phone category on the Romanian market). Al Tolstoy appeared in a 45 sec TV commercial saying that he believed in this vision and that—long story short—we had his word that Connex would become under his management the most trusted mobile phone operator in Romania.

The campaign boosted the credibility index of the brand and these promises shortly became the basic associators of the brand. One could conclude that the mere promise made through this campaign was believed, appreciated and rewarded by the consumers. Can it really be that easy? Would that be all? Make a good TV campaign, promise things, and then clients believe us and show preference for our products and end up by buying?

In fact, what Al Tolstoy promised was really happening in the organizational daily behavior, throughout the decisions that the company took where the entire approach was obsessively aiming at the best standard of quality and client servicing. Otherwise put: the promise on the TV transformed itself into brand attributes because there was a clean and honest consistency between what we were performing inside the organization and what were promising outside.

Integrity, as a defining notion in morale and ethics is about honesty, sincerity, virtue, vertical spine etc, it resides in the good accordance of our principles to our deeds and, last but not least, it resides in doing good; simply put, a person with integrity is an honest person, incorruptible and whose good intentions and actions support his or her entire existence. Integrity in business is about principles, about noble intentions and good deeds and the immediate effect of it is the solid building of trust in that business. A business that is regarded trustfully by its stakeholders has better chances of success and is more protected as it counts on more certitudes.

If you Google “integritate” (meaning “integrity” in Romanian) you will have the unpleasant surprise to come across pages and pages of authorities and committees that fight against corruption; integrity in Romanian society nowadays is defined by obsessively opposing it to corruption. Not the same happens if we Google the English word, where the first meanings of the concept emerge clearly with reference to “the most admired person, company”, etc.

Now, what is the link between integrity and branding? Branding is the most direct, simple and at hand form to express the integrity of a product, service or company because a brand is a contract of certitude and a promise of value at the same time that is supported by the very reality of that brand’s performance. The promise of a brand that works against its performance hits back like a boomerang.

Integrity, as the root of trust that stakeholders show for the business, must be regarded as the inner truth of that business and only secondarily as a public promise. Integrity is about telling yourself the truth about you and then telling it to others.

Historically speaking, product brands are related to the integrity of the producer and to its good reputation (the registered mark on the product). The quality of the product or service is the fundament upon which a brand is built (we like to say that a brand creates fans while a product creates buyers). Henry Ford said that the integrity of the product is measured through its mere quality, which means “making it good even when there is nobody out there to watch you”. At first sight, integrity is easier to control in the case of a product brand than in the case of a corporate brand; in reality, the integrity issue pops up even here when it is about deciding whether to make a bad compromise or not. And that is how things get complicated as the following question becomes legitimate: “Does the product do any harm to the health or the mind of the consumer?” or “Does this product hurt the environment in any way?” Tough question, especially for people that work in conceptualizing, marketing and communication of certain products. How could, for example, a man that leads the marketing department of a cigarettes company be recognized by the community as “the most admired professional of the year” when the exceptional performance of this professional influenced directly the buying and consumption decision of a product so harmful to health? Or how honest is the involvement of cigarettes brands in social responsibility campaigns.

Going even further, how honest could be a brand produced by a business entity that accepts plagiarizing the brand property of another competitor? (see the recent case of a competitor’s carbon-copy to the category-leading Biocarpet. Moreover, how about a big retailer that enters the business of private label by copying the color and the look of the category leader who has to pay good money to have access to the retailer’s shelf?

What I am trying to point out is that even in the case of product brands, it is still the organizational brand what matters the most. An upright organization does not do un-righteous things in the conceptualizing, production or promotion of its products. The most admired companies in the world, Apple, Google (“Don’t be evil!”), P&G are those who make the best, in quality terms, and most innovative products in their category, and strive for the progress of humanity. An organization is the common manifestation of individual integrities, and the management group—the owner, the CEO, top management—is the one that can nurture integrity. From fashion to pharmaceuticals, from software to books, it is not the pirated brands that ought to scary us but the companies and especially the countries behind them. Forgery and piracy in branding manage to gather around $2 billion per year only in China, Turkey and Russia (for those who visited Shanghai, it’s shocking to see famous brands fully carbon copied, including the brand property of the packaging and of retail). Let alone considering the case when pharmaceutical brands are pirated, having the performance of killing approx. 200.000 persons per year.

Nevertheless, even big brands can have major quality issues. Let’s remember Tylenol or Vioxx or the even more recent case of Toyota. In these cases, the immediate withdrawal and the measures taken to repair damages act as evidence of these brands’ integrity, as it is usually easier to embrace failure than to face bad reputation.

For a corporate brand to be perceived externally as acting with integrity, it must primarily cultivate its internal integrity, the organizational integrity. Acting on principles is good for the way we live within a company and not for the external show. And integrity is not solely someone’s fief or job description within an organization—say of the CFO or the acquisition manager. A company of integrity has as CEO of integrity and hires people of integrity, dismissing even the most competent people should they be inclined towards making moral and ethical compromises. These days, associations and endorsements can destroy a long lasting work overnight. One of the most powerful local media brands, Realitatea, actively wrote, so to say, the “chronicle of a nightmare foretold” through its mere association with toxic values and the highly questionable paths of its main shareholder.

However, business is a world of compromise and whoever got over his years of apprenticeship surely understands that. It’s just that there are several types of compromises: some that put you in the situation of acting against your feelings but without ruining your reputation or personal moral code and others that discredit you. Compromise in business must not lead to discredit. The Romanian state should take note having made a positioning out of discrediting compromises and thus becoming an untrustworthy player with no respect and no intrinsic value, disregarded by business partners and manipulated by whoever holds the power at a certain moment.

Moreover, blogging brands which are nowadays growing in popularity and value, must also pay attention to integrity: the collective memory of internet matters and in this respect, honesty beats the “unique visitors” index if you care for making a respectful business out of your blogging.

It is a proven fact that the organizational integrity directly affects the business’ performance. Working environments with proven integrity are more predictable and easier to manage, as they do not waste their energy and knowledge on collateral purposes and do not depend on opportunities created by others—they create their own opportunities, they control instead of being controlled. These entities make fewer efforts to gather managers and employees under a common vision and can naturally grow a positive sense of responsibility in each of them.

Personally, I am not convinced by any company that displays on its walls “the vision”(or “the objective”?) of becoming the most admired company. This must be a natural result and not a goal in itself. Instead, the approach of any company that wants the best standard in quality and innovation, that acts with passion and respect, that praises and searches for value (not success!)—this is what must be praised.

Branding as a business practice is about integrity, about keeping promises but also about setting premises for a greater good.

Brands that do not deliver trust have a shorter life and nobody cries for them. Brand is a form of value and precisely this value — an intricate notion as it works in a material, rational and emotional sense altogether – is the very support of a trust-based relationship. A funny thought crosses my mind: how about pornography brands (soft or hard) or what is called adult entertainment? Are they morally upright? Do we trust them? Do they strive for a greater good? :-). It is not easy to answer this as long as Playboy not only became one of the most powerful entertainment businesses (with extensions in tens of categories and across continents) becoming a cult brand of our times of a liberal lifestyle model. Hmm, so do we trust Playboy or not? Does it harm in any way? Ask feminists for example. Does it respect its promise? Oh, yes, it does as long as it is even regarded as a flagship magazine in US. Furthermore, we surprisingly find out that more than 60% of adult population of Western countries does no longer consider pornography a territory of a lack of morality. As long as ethics is concerned, it’s pretty much the same: after all, they do pay their taxes on operating their businesses, don’t they? Penthouse? Hustler? Vivid? Did you know for instance that Beate Uhse has a 98% brand awareness in Germany and is one of the most loved German brands? We hope to never know the answer to the question: “Who do you trust more : Playboy or the Romanian State?”

What is harder to accept in our beloved country is that brands, apart from emotional attributes, must have a capital of trust. It seems to me that the cynicism of the modern Romanian society starts to look like a prerequisite of corruption, taking the shape of general defeatism that institutes the lack of trust and reputation as the bare normality; brands thus risk to become pseudo-brands, with peaks in awareness, interest and recognisability, but losing any appeal for a “good” greater than themselves. Some of them, endowed with a plus of charisma but highly toxic, get to seduce even the brightest minds.

I would ask you how many of the companies you have worked for have “integrity” among their organizational values? (by the way, Brandient has it and by all means we are proudly living by it). A more cynical business consultant is entitled to ask: “Are you sure that this value-integrity makes sense in the business environment of Romania”? Because what are values if not there to help and inspire a better performance in a certain business context? And if the current context is rather hostile to this integrity value, why bother? The answer might quickly spring, as cynical as the question: because we, those who praise integrity, also have the right NOT to steal and NOT to discredit our reputation as the others who do vice versa. But a far better answer would be: “What is left behind in the wake of our work, our effort, our enthusiasm and passion?” I suggest you do not ignore this question even if you haven’t yet reached your midlife. What we leave behind is the very foundation of our future. Would you call that peanuts?

More on this in the near future when we will invite you at a very special conference, an underground event that hopefully will take the shape of a national brand engagement of the Romanian business community.

Aneta Bogdan, FCIM, Chartered Marketer
Managing Partner Brandient
First published in Romanian at
May, 2011