In a more socially aware world, the most trusted brands are not the usual suspects.
Recent research by Edelman Public Relations interspersed the names of three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) among the Microsofts, Fords and Nikes. In Europe, higher percentages of consumers expressed trust in Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the WWF than in all the for-profit brands included in the study. In the US, the NGO brands were not dominant but were strong performers.
Why are NGO brands so widely trusted? Their missions command broad respect. The values that are at their core are universal in their appeal. A related factor is the size, scale and operational scope of these global NGOs. In the cluttered not-for-profit sector, consistently good leadership has enabled them to stand the test of time, and to establish worldwide networks of affiliates.
Second, precisely because they are non-profit making, these global NGO brands benefit from a presumption of integrity that the corporate world lacks. Their work is often courageous. As underdogs working on our behalf, they take on big business and national governments. They may not be as ruthlessly efficient as the global corporation, but their staff are not in it for the money nor are they lining their pockets on the side.
Third, the names of the leading global NGO brands are simple, unique and memorable. They succinctly capture the purpose of the organisation.
Greenpeace is a brilliant brand name. Amnesty International likewise.
Nor has there been any dilution of the core brand through sub- or signature brands. Perhaps out of a fortuitous branding naivety, the cumulative trust that the activities of these NGOs have built over time has, in each case, benefited a single brand name.
Indeed, could it be that these brands are so trusted because they have done so little marketing? As an executive at Amnesty International told me: "We don't actively manage our brand. Perhaps we have a strong reputation as a result." Is that a potentially embarrassing insight for Coca-Cola and other global brands that spend billions each year to maintain brand trust and preference?
In fact, the leading global NGOs are brilliant marketers. Consider Greenpeace's highly publicised direct-action initiatives. Or Amnesty International's letter-writing campaigns on behalf of political prisoners. Or Unicef's deployment of volunteer Hollywood celebrities - such as Laurence Fishburne, Sarah Jessica Parker and Liv Tyler - as roving ambassadors. These approaches all generate significant free publicity for the cause, attracting more donors, volunteers and members as a result.
Until recently, however, the word "marketing" would not be mentioned in conversation around the water cooler. NGOs viewed spending large sums on advertising and direct mail as unacceptable to donors. The reason: many keep a close watch on the percentage of donated funds passed through to beneficiaries or expended on mission-critical projects.
For several reasons, marketing is becoming both more necessary and respected in the NGO world. First, the number of NGOs has proliferated in the past decade, and breaking through the clutter requires clear definition of target market, message and appropriate media.
Second, partnerships among NGOs and between NGOs and corporations have become more common as the magnitude of challenges - poverty, rights abuses, environmental degradation - has grown way beyond any one NGO's ability to address. Partnerships require a mutual understanding of brand strength and market power as well as operational capabilities.
Third, the evident trust that consumers place in the leading global NGOs demands that the brand asset be protected and nurtured. Guidelines to affiliates dictating proper presentation of the NGO's name and logo are essential, and trademarks must be defended against pirates.
NGOs have multiple stakeholders, and the beneficiaries of their efforts are invariably not the same people as the donors. In fact, donors have to trust NGOs to spend their gifts wisely on behalf of people they never see in countries they will never visit. Perhaps trust in the leading global NGOs is so high simply because it has to be for them to function.
But this trust in Greenpeace and WWF is not based on wishful thinking. It is, as in the case of any commercial brand, based on the cumulative performance of the brand, real and perceived, over time.
Professor John Quelch of Harvard Business School is co-author of 'The New Global Brands', Thomson Southwestern Publishing, 2005
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