Harvard Professor Preaches Gospel of Trust and Branding to DMers

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LONG BEACH, CA -- It took a right-leaning Harvard professor to tell an audience of direct marketing's most numbers-focused professionals that trust is more important than databases for building a successful brand.

Now more than ever, consumers seek brands with names they know and trust, David A. Shore, associate dean and director of the Trust Initiative at Harvard University, said yesterday in a session at the National Center for Database Marketing's summer show.

"Trust is the essential ingredient when organizations shift from a product-centric to a promise-centric model," Shore said.

Consumers today are also shopping more by emotion than rational behavior, he said. This makes it imperative for brands to own something proprietary, and not just sell on the basis of products and services.

"If you highlight everything, you highlight nothing," Shore said.

Take the major players in each category. Bic positions itself on disposability, not ballpoint pens. Revlon sells hope, not lipstick. Starbucks is in the meeting place business, not coffee. Fannie Mae is about the American dream, not mortgages.

"What is the space you want to own? A focus on solutions over benefits is the start," Shore said.

So the question really is, what to brand and how to build a powerful brand? It is not whether to brand. Perception, more than product or service, dictates value.

Shore would shame his profession if he did not trot out a formula. His was: Brand equity = strategic awareness + perceived quality + singular distinction.

"The marketplace does not see a demonstrable difference between providers or manufacturers," he said.

Ironically, great brands have less exposure in the marketplace. They are sued less. And people give them a second chance when they falter.

For example, Tylenol has been cited as one of the most effective crisis management case studies. Why? Johnson & Johnson quickly acknowledged the incidence of cyanide-laced pills and moved to make amends. Only 18 months later, Tylenol had gained more market share than before the scandal.

Shore recollected an old saw in Washington: You don't get into trouble for the deed. You get into trouble for the cover-up.

Brands that manage their reputation well also benefit from a halo effect.

When U.S. News & World Report began its business school rankings in 1988, Princeton University was high in the list. But Princeton had no MBA program.

Similarly, Massachusetts General hospital has been praised for its ophthalmology department. It does not have one. And General Electric Co. is often lauded for products it does not manufacture.

"A brand's single most powerful position in any consumer's mind is a position of trust," Shore said.

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