Thursday, October 18, 2007

Can You Measure the Value of Integrity?

People don't like us much, and they don't trust us.

That's a hard truth for marketers: ours is not a much-loved profession. Lynn Upshaw of the UC Berkeley business school talks about this topic in a recent MarketingProfs piece:
A Yankelovich study a few years ago found that as many as two-thirds of Americans believe that businesses would take advantage of the public if those businesses did not think they would be exposed. As many as one-fourth of Americans agreed that there is literally nothing that business can do to recapture their trust once it is lost. ("State of Consumer Trust," 2004).

We live in a time of omnipresent scrutiny by citizen journalists, regulators, attorneys general, and virtually anyone with a computer and a point of view. The risks of shaky integrity have never been more real. Now would be a good time to measure how well a brand's marketing helps or hinders its perceived integrity, which is to say its ability to build and hold customer trust.
This is true, and any discussion of how to restore trust needs to start by accepting that consumers are not wrong about this. Consumers believe that businesses will trick them and take advantage of them because businesses regularly do this, from the kinds of shiftiness chronicled on the Mouse Print blog to blatant betrayals of public trust like dangerous products, pollution, and other misdeeds.

And while I hate to say this, marketing is particularly problematic area, and I am regularly appalled by what passes for acceptable behavior for marketers. Regular readers know that I have a serious problem with marketing to children, for example; I think it's nearly impossible to target kids with commercial messages designed to persuade without crossing an ethical line. (The fact that agencies hire child psychologists to design those messages and take advantage of kids' incomplete emotional and intellectual development only makes it worse.) Claiming to be "green" by doing some tiny thing that will have little effect on anything is questionable. Blanketing public space with advertising may be good business, but it's bad citizenship. And so on, and so on.

Upshaw shares some thoughts about how one might measure a "return on marketing integrity." I think that's a noble idea, but there are some problems here.

The first is that companies that have truly solid reputations for honesty can build those reputations in part because the average reputation. If the consumer's assumption is that everyone will rip her off given the chance, you can define yourself as one of the few organizations that won't do that. If the assumption was honesty, that wouldn't work.

I suspect that this only works for those who make serious commitments to the highest ethical business practices: in other words, the superstars of marketing (and corporate) integrity. That's a real investment. The problem is that if you only get halfway there, you've probably got nothing measurable to show for it, because your reputation is not yours alone.

Every time a spammer sends a phishing scam via email, your email becomes more suspect. Every time someone creates a rebate program which requires buyers to jump through hoops, wait twelve weeks, and still not get their check, your straightforward rebate program is tainted. Unless you've got great brand recognition and a sterling reputation, in the consumer's eyes, you're just part of that undifferentiated mass of shifty bastards who can't be trusted. Making some incremental improvements probably won't change that.

So should we just forget it? No, and that's why I welcome Upshaw's ideas though I am skeptical. I doubt that you'll ever be able to show much in the way of financial return on something as subjective as "integrity."

There is, however, something else, something harder to measure and less easily traded and leveraged, which is knowing that you're doing the right things in your professional life. Perhaps that needs to be an end in itself.

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