A few years ago I set off with a bunch of friends to follow England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka. The beautiful hill town of Kandy promised to be a spectacular location for the first Test, but it was not the scenery that grabbed our attention when we arrived. Sri Lankan newspapers were warning of an illegal brewing scam, in which bandits were manufacturing their own moonshine, refilling empty bottles of beer and spirits and then reselling it back into regular channels. Unfortunately, the booze was not just illegal – it was dangerous. Several local people had been blinded after drinking it.
Our group faced an unexpected existential crisis. On the one hand, no one fancied the prospect of being rushed to a local hospital and potentially losing their sight. On the other, five long days of Test cricket without a beer was something we all found hard to contemplate. Two minutes later we set off to the local liquor store. There is a reason the England cricket team’s band of fans is called the Barmy Army.
At the store, clearly we wanted to minimize the chances of selecting a potentially lethal brew. Scanning the aisles, however, we saw only unfamiliar brands. Suddenly my eyes rested on the familiar image of a lion staring proudly back at me. I remembered it from a fancy import shop back in England. Lion was the only Sri Lankan beer I had ever drunk before. I knew the brand. If I had to place my trust in a beer this day, it would be that one. In a dangerous jungle of mystery brands, Lion Beer was my totem.
During the first session of play that morning I sat in the stands enjoying my beer and a whole new appreciation for the gift of sight. With the glorious sound of leather on willow in the background and the pleasing sensation of a late-morning beer buzz, I pondered my experience, and began to appreciate where brands derived most of their equity in ancient times.
Faced with a sea of unreliable and potentially debilitating products and services, I suspect the role of brands for our ancestors fundamentally centered on trust. My ancestor chose Frank’s butchers not just because it had the best cuts of meat or it supplied the local gentry, but also because he trusted Frank not to sell meat that would make his family unwell.
Happily, in a world of food standards, consumers can assume that death and illness are unlikely to result from a dodgy food purchase. Trust in our industries has freed us to focus on higher-order associations linked to a brand’s superior performance or, even higher, what it says about you as a consumer. Brands have climbed from their foundation of trust and into performative and symbolic realms.
However, the recent failures in British banking – and US banking for that matter – has transported many consumers back in time to experience a more prehistoric form of brand equity. Suddenly consumers care less about interest rates or being with a bank that ‘helps you take the simple steps’. If you had read the minds of the customers queueing outside those Northern Rock branches, you would have heard the same thought up and down them: ‘Is my money safe?’
Savers who listened as Lloyds Banking Group recently explained why it is to pay out millions of pounds in bonuses, despite effectively being a bankrupt institution, were not interested in the bank’s pathetic justifications. Their concerns could be distilled to a single, ancient question that is suddenly at the top of the branding agenda again for many brand managers – ‘Can I trust you?’
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