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Claire Beale on Marketing and Branding: Tesco and a question of trust


Whatever your view on the ethics of eating horses, this month's dodgy burger scandal has called the ethics of some of Britain's biggest brands into question.

Whether you think horse meat is a high-protein, low-fat food – a dietary staple in many countries – or akin to eating the family pet, the real crux of the horse-burger farrago is trust.

We trust big established brands such as Tesco and Iceland to tell us the truth about what they're selling. They say "beef" burgers, we believe them. Now Ireland's Food Safety Authority finds "beef with more than a hint of horse" might be a more accurate description for some of the burgers these companies are flogging. Turns out we've been misled, albeit unwittingly, and crucial bonds of trust have been slashed and corporate reputations shattered.

No matter that the retailers peddled the horse meat unknowingly (though the failure of their quality control is simply shocking), this is a major crisis moment for the supermarkets.

It takes years – and often many millions of pounds – for brands to build their reputations. But it's an investment that keeps on giving: if we trust brands we're more likely to pay a premium for them, to recommend them and buy them more frequently. No wonder firms such as Tesco invest billions to persuade us they're on our side, they understand us, we can rely on them.

But trust can be destroyed in a day, even faster in our hyper-connected world where there's no place to hide and corporate failings are more easily discovered and bad news spread. When things do go wrong at companies we care about, the new social media-empowered consumer demands full recognition and remorse.

For a lesson in how not to do it, take Barclays bank. When the Libor rate fixing scandal broke last summer, the company's efforts seemed to focus on protecting its CEO Bob Diamond from the fallout. But only Diamond's scalp and a full public apology would satisfy the public. By failing to recognise that quickly enough, trust in Barclays was hit even harder.

It's a lesson that has not been lost on Tesco. Key executives wasted no time getting in front of the media to acknowledge the horse meat crisis, apologise and reassure consumers. Will such quick action have preserved some of the trust Tesco worked so hard to build? Perhaps, but only if Tesco really means it. If not, it will be found out quicker than a thoroughbred out of the starting box.

Next week: Danny Rogers on PR and advertising