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Should Brands Hide Behind Fig Leaf of Law?
They say patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and when you see brands hiding behind the fig leaf of the law you wonder if there is a parallel.
Photo Credit : Shutterstock
A few weeks ago, an environment watchdog known to make significant disclosures, conducted laboratory tests on multiple brands of a food product and stirred the hornet’s nest. The results indicated that along with many others one prominent local brand, which has a large portfolio of products and considerable trust amongst consumers, was adding sugar in its process to an otherwise claimed ‘natural food’. To add to the misery, another powerful local brand and competitor had come through clean in the tests. The next few days saw public duelling between these two through advertisements. One claiming that they met all the standards stipulated by the national food regulator while the other publicly cocked a snook by claiming its superiority and claim to trust. The advertising self-regulator was pulled in to adjudicate on the claims being made by the brands in this messaging warfare.
Journalists, marketing commentators et al joined the joust. Business dailies, newspapers, online publications and television channels energetically addressed the likely shift in market shares or the probable fall from grace if the insinuations of the watchdog were to be believed. A well-known online business journalist posted a poser on a business networking platform querying and asking for views on which out of the two brands was likely to emerge as the winner of this situation. Animated texting brought in detailed analysis and predictions. Another popular brand advisory founder and commentator on the platform wrote a piece suggesting that the free buzz generated was going to be a winning streak for the brand that had defaulted. He argued that the decibel level of the conversation was more important than the nature of its content.
Such incidents are not isolated and all these views and analyses are very legitimate. In fact, the obvious response for such an incident is a social discourse. However, there is something that such occurrences set in motion that has serious and far-reaching consequences. If you take the sum total of the issue highlighted by the watchdog, the response of the concerned companies on-ground and in the media, the critical views of the commentators and the consumers and the effect that this has on those who actually buy or use these products and services the long-term consequence is that there are no winners. There are only losers.
A company that has been conducting a survey to reflect a trust barometer over the last 20 years has found that despite fairly strong economic performance for many years (keeping aside the unfortunate last year) there is a growing trust paradox. The major societal institutions – government, business, NGOs and media especially in the developed world are no longer trusted. While improved economic conditions were a precursor to increased levels of trust. That doesn’t seem to be the case now.
Corruption in government, the hunger of power for profit at any cost, fake news, corporate misfeasance and greater disparity of incomes has possibly left the people at large with the feeling that they are not getting their fair share of the wealth that is being created. This is deliquescing the bond of trust between institutions and people. This erosion creates greater conflict in society and is antithetical to harmonised living and progress. The intent, actions and behaviour of institutions need to be under severe scrutiny, preferably by their own internal mechanisms to check for infractions that slacken the credence of the institutions as working in the interest of the people. And not for their own power and profiteering.
The world of business has much to lose with diminishing trust from customers. The clouds of controversy that surround business in terms of their governance, offerings and nexus with politicians leave very little room for inspiring confidence. Cut-throat competitiveness with public mudslinging doesn’t pull down one to enhance the other’s prospect. Two squabbling neighbours makes it a noisy neighbourhood and one not worth investing in.
They say patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and when you see brands hiding behind the fig leaf of the law you wonder if there is a parallel. For brands adherence to law should be the lowest common denominator. Stepping on the wrong side of the line is not a matter of upsetting customer sentiment. It is a crime. So, being legally compliant is necessary but not adequate. Trust can only be built when you are honest and transparent about who and what you truly are.
A brand’s promise to customers is not merely a contract, it is a sacrament. It is and should be, inviolate. Therein lies the secret of trust.
The power of consumer centricity is no longer in doubt. It is well known that customers and employees are important stakeholders of any business and over five times more important to a company’s long-term success than shareholders. Progressive business leadership know that the game has shifted from focussing on delivering to shareholders alone to delighting stakeholders and protecting their interests.
India today is the crucible of many successful brands that have indeed gained the trust of consumers. Many have started to spread their wings in building their presence overseas. The repository of trust that they build here will be strongest foundation for a successful global architecture. To build the long-term possibilities for Indian business, our products and services must be exceptional hallmarks of excellence and trust. Brands that have already earned that trust have an onerous responsibility to ensure that their actions continue to build on it. An array of such brands alone will help India develop its global presence with speed and certainty.
It is often the nature of things that short-term benefit trumps long-term vision. Managers have specific goals and targets to achieve and some calculated risks seem fair game. It is here that wisdom must step in to play its part. The Board of Directors have a role to play and discharge their Duty of Care with diligence to ensure that risks that can erode trust are mitigated. It is an asset that can only be created over time, has to be nurtured every day and will yield rich dividends for a lifetime.
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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)