Top products fail to deliver the goods

Research shows that famous brands are not living up to their image, writes Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
IT IS often said that management initiatives do not have the desired effects because executives do not "walk the talk". That is, what they do does not match what they say. At a time of what appears to be unprecedented questioning of the value of brands, it looks as if many companies are failing their customers.

That, at least, is the conclusion of research recently carried out among leading fast-moving consumer goods companies by Dragon International, a specialist in the management of brand and corporate reputation. The study discovered "glaring discrepancies" between value statements made by brand manufacturers and the responses from their personnel to inquiries by customers. In other words, says Dragon, their reputations do not live up to the promises.

For the study Dragon acted as a mystery shopper. Different members of staff sent letters from their home addresses in the home counties under a variety of names to the top 50 brands in areas such as toiletries, soft drinks, alcohol, cereals and canned goods. Each letter was sent to the brand manager or relevant person indicated on the item's packaging.

The questions covered a wide variety of subjects - requesting information on the brand's ultimate owner, asking for help with a child's school project, seeking information on the brand's environment policy, questioning the brand's community involvement, seeking assistance with a customer complaint, asking for recipes for cooking with the product in question, querying pricing, and requesting details of the brand's advertising strategy.

David Lowings, one of the consultants who carried out the research, admits that they made the odd "cock-up", such as requesting information on recipes using the Tango soft drink. But he claims that the exercise clearly demonstrates that many companies have much to do in matching their behaviour to their marketing image.

The objectives of the research were to examine brands' attitudes towards customers, to test consistency of brands' communication, and to determine brands' willingness to encourage commitment. In meeting these objectives, the research was seeking to find out which brands welcomed the opportunity to develop a relationship with their customers, which only paid lip service to the idea, which appeared to be embracing the concept of building "brand reputation", and which are doing more to encourage commitment from their consumers in their everyday communication and behaviour.

He and his colleagues judged the responses received before the end of the eight-week cut-off period according to five criteria: speed, tone, quality, accuracy and fullness.

Many top brands did not live up to their visual images or the personality associated with their names. But others did - notably Famous Grouse whisky, which in its responses came across just like the warm, friendly companion it seeks to portray itself as, and Colgate, which scored higher marks than any other brand and confirmed that its personality and image were entirely consistent.

The result, suggests Dragon, is that there are significant opportunities for creating the basis for long-term differentiation and consumer commitment. It has begun showing the results of the research to clients with this aim in mind, and claims: "Everybody bought into what we were doing, nobody complained about our behaviour." Instead, somewhat disconcertingly , it says: "People are saying we've never really thought about this at all."

If they do, they should not have to think too long to realise, as Mr Lowings points out, that: "All the talk about 'relationship marketing' is ineffectual unless you can give the consumer something to have a relationship with. This implies demonstrating brand values in depth, beyond the superficial level of the advertising pack or promotions."