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Charleston Business

You Can’t Build Trust With An Ad Campaign

Jul 11, 2018 03:11PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Tom Martin
Executive in Residence, The College of Charleston

In recent weeks, the airwaves have been filled with big-budget ad campaigns from Uber, Facebook, and Wells Fargo seeking to repair their damaged images and restore their reputations to pre-crisis levels. Other companies and industries have tried this in the past, from BP to the pharmaceutical industry, and the results are at best mixed.

The problem isn’t necessarily with the advertising. The campaigns appear in all the right places and the messages are compelling. The reason the audience looks at these campaigns with skepticism, or outright scorn, is that they don’t match the reality that the public has experienced. No sooner had Wells Fargo launched its new campaign with full page ads in the New York Times and elsewhere than the bank disclosed a new $480 million settlement with shareholders accusing it of securities fraud. Uber and Facebook similarly are in the news constantly with more testimony before government entities in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere answering charges of monopolistic and deceptive practices, tolerance of abusive cultures, and threats to privacy.

What these examples seem to indicate is that even very smart executives seem to ignore the fact that reputational crises aren’t caused by words but by deeds. Wells Fargo wouldn’t have to run feel-good ads if they hadn’t employed devious tactics to inflate sales revenues while betraying customers’ trust. If Uber hadn’t tolerated a toxic workplace culture, and hadn’t looked the other way at the behavior of its ousted CEO and other employees, they wouldn’t need the new CEO to take to the airwaves to ensure the public that everything’s going to be okay.

Every entrepreneur and business manager can draw lessons from these examples. P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but that was before the internet gave every unhappy customer, employee, and investor a megaphone louder than any Barnum ever used to summon people to the circus.

It’s true that we have been fooled, on a grand scale, by deception from many quarters. We believed our doctors really were helping us fight pain by prescribing millions of opioid prescriptions, and now tens of thousands of us are dying from addiction every year. We really believed those who made our cars were committed to safety and reliability, until Volkswagen, Toyota, and others planted huge seeds of doubt that they had our best interests at heart.

For any organization—from a global behemoth to a tiny start-up—to build trust, it must first realize that trust is built by actions and behavior, not slogans, logos, and images. You can’t demand trust; you have to earn it over time. The actions of executives, middle managers, and frontline employees are far more powerful in building and sustaining a positive reputation than slick ad campaigns.

What can a small business do? It can start by building an internal culture of commitment to its employees. Employees tend to mirror the treatment they are receiving from the company in how they treat the paying customer. A business can make and keep promises to its customers and investors. In that regard, it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around. Finally, when something goes wrong, and it will, the business should apologize promptly, accept responsibility to make it right, and find a way to avoid making the same mistake twice.

A recent example provides a good lesson for all businesses. When the U.K. branch of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain recently managed to run out of chicken in most of its restaurants there, they didn’t try to minimize the colossal magnitude of the mistake. Instead, the company ran ads that said: "A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It's not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who traveled out of their way to find we were closed. And endless thanks to our KFC team members and our franchise partners for working tirelessly to improve the situation. It's been a hell of a week, but we're making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants. Thank you for bearing with us.” The ad went further, including a photo of the iconic chicken bucket with the letters “KFC” rearranged as “FCK.” It was irreverent, self-deprecating, and in the end highly effective.

The KFC ad, like any successful apology, was fast, honest, and committed to fixing the problem. The ad paid tribute to the employees and suppliers who were making it right, and it stated what was being done to remedy the problem. The many companies fashioning their own mea culpas would do well to take notice.