In a crisis of reputation and trust, the personal touch is everything

Horsemeat headlines

The horsemeat scandal in Europe continues at the centre stage of attention with more bad news appearing almost daily in lurid newspaper headlines like those above in some UK tabloids as more beef products contaminated with horsemeat are discovered in many European countries.

Alongside the original headline-grabbers about supermarkets in the UK such as Tesco, Asda, Lidl and Iceland and brands such as Findus are newer appearances by global brands like Ikea, Burger King and Taco Bell – some of whose food products were found to contain horsemeat and not be ‘100% beef’ – where consumer confidence has been badly shaken.

Indeed, since this scandal erupted in January, sales of processed meat products across Europe have fallen dramatically – by 40 percent or more in some food categories.

A big shift in consumer purchasing behaviour has happened very quickly; whether it’s a long-term or permanent shift is yet to be seen.

The feeling is clearly what you see is most definitely not what you get. When the retailers were as surprised and alarmed by the scandal as consumers were – clearly the retailers don’t know enough about their own supply chains – the big question is ‘Who do you trust?’. A well-established brand name no longer cuts the mustard, as it were, in garnering trust (annual reports like Edelman’s Trust Barometer offer credible proof of such declines and shifts in trust, and the reasons).

Food retailing is huge business. In the UK, the grocery retailing market was worth £163.2 billion (€188.4b, $245.4b) in 2012, according to the Institute of Grocery Distribution. That’s more than half of all UK retail spending.

Given the majority share of this valuable market that the big supermarkets enjoy, what’s been interesting to see is how they have been handling this crisis of consumer confidence, reputation and trust.

This weekend, Tesco – the biggest food retailer in the UK and the third-largest globally – took out ads in the mainstream media, like the one below that appeared in the Telegraph on March 2.

Tesco double-page spread in the Telegraph, March 2, 2013

This photo of the ad doesn’t do justice to its majestic size – a double-page spread in a broadsheet newspaper. That means a height of nearly two feet and a width of two-and-a-half feet (in metric: 60cm x 75cm).

It certainly grabs your attention.

Yet as a message, I wonder how effective it actually is. I’ve wondered before what such corporate apology-type ads really achieve. They look to me as if they’re more about a feel-good factor for the advertiser with a big-size-matters message – two feet by two-and-a-half! – rather than aiming to achieve any kind of effective resonance with a target audience (and how can you, really, in a mass medium?)

I don’t know what Tesco’s communication strategy is concerning this crisis of reputation and trust nor its goals for this particular ad. The message wording on the right-hand page of the newspaper spread isn’t engaging at all, in my subjective opinion of course.

On the contrary, I found it a bit patronising if not condescending, reinforced by its anonymous informality. (Click on the image above to see it at Flickr in its full 2448 x 3264 pixels glory where you can also read the wording clearly.)

I’m not sure at all that anyone is provoked into taking any kind of action in response to such bland, impersonal messaging.

I contrast this to what I’ve seen in focused, personal messaging by Tesco and other retailers in how they have reached out directly to consumers via email.

Compare Tesco’s press ad to the wording and overall approach of an email I received from Tesco this week.

Tesco email

It’s the second email I’ve received from Tesco. With this latest one, some clear consistency in messaging is apparent with it and the press ad.

What’s most notable to me, though, is that it’s from an identifiable individual whose name appears at the end of the message – Philip Clarke, the CEO of Tesco. It’s written in the first person, from him to me (and to the millions of other individual members of Tesco’s customer loyalty programme  who will have received such an email).

It’s far more likely to influence me into a) giving it any attention, and serious attention at that; and b) heeding any specific calls to action. Which I did – I visited, the new website Tesco set up as a focal point for communicating all they’re doing in relation to the horsemeat scandal.

And what of the other supermarkets?

I’ve not seen any press ads like Tesco’s from any of them – but, caveat: as I don’t buy or read printed newspapers except the Telegraph at the weekend, I may have missed any if ads have appeared – but I have received email from some, those whose loyalty programmes I’m a member of or have otherwise got onto an email database.

Sainsbury’s, for example. The UK’s third-biggest food retailer has not been named as one with any horsemeat-contaminated products, a factor they emphasise in the email signed by Justin King, their CEO.

Sainsbury's email

And they go beyond that emphasis by highlighting what they know of their own supply chain – a key aspect of re-building some confidence in the minds of consumers, which could well be a significant competitive differentiator in the months ahead.

A similar message comes from Waitrose, the food retailing part of John Lewis, in an email signed by Mark Price, Managing Director.

Waitrose email

My final exhibit is an email I received from Marks and Spencer, signed by Steve Rowe, its Executive Director Foods.

Its focus, too, is on the company’s supply chain and the strength of its relationship with its suppliers.

Marks & Spencer email

Other than C-Suite or other senior executive signings, what all of these email communications have in common is the clear statements regarding their supply chains and how confident each executive is in the relationships their businesses have.

(That’s a key point, incidentally: it’s about those individuals, more than their businesses. So you want to find out a bit about them. Note to those companies: you need to do a much better job on executives’ bios. I can read the corporate bios on the websites, but I just Google the names and probably go to Wikipedia. Not enough information. Give them discoverable and shareable info on the social web. LinkedIn would be a good place to start.)

They’re all good messages, ones that I think will be foundational going forward as elements in ‘trust construction’ (I don’t think we can talk about ‘rebuilding’ until this crisis has fully passed).

But it’s very thin ice everyone is walking on.

So far, there’s nothing concrete to suggest any threat to human health from beef products that contain horsemeat. So far, everything has been about mis-labelling and possible frauds somewhere in the supply chains out there at the edge, away from the point of sale.

How quickly that ice will break, plunging everyone into deep and very cold water, if human health comes into question or if horsemeat contamination is found in fresh meat products.

And consider how related and connected everything is these days – if more contamination is discovered in food products in restaurants, schools, hospitals and other places, think of the knock-on effects that will likely have on people’s perceptions and what they buy in the supermarket.

Email communication like that I’ve mentioned here is, broadly speaking, one of the most effective tools that you can use to reach out directly to your customers, if you do it right. If that’s part of other genuinely-personal outreach approaches via social media channels, clearly integrated with all other communication activity, then you will have a solid foundation to confidently communicate to support your business.

All of the companies I’ve mentioned in this post do have presences across the social web in places like Facebook and Twitter. Yet, in my view from  observing what’s going on, they’re all largely marketing channels. What you want is genuine engagement, not lame contests and how many ‘likes’ you can get.

If that ice does break, you’ll need every connection you can muster, where you have invested your time and effort to build those genuine relationships with individuals who will want to tell your story (David Phillips has a few ideas about that).

And that’s not a story of corporate-apology ads: it’s one of farmers and suppliers, the relationship connections between people rather than a mechanical-sounding supply chain.

Above all it’s about how people and conversations are the constituent elements in building trust in you, your company and your brand (in that order).

It’s about the personal touch, a belief that the individual as a customer really does matter.

It’s a powerful thing.

(Image at top via Gene Hunt, used under Creative Commons license.)

[Later:] In a twist to the tail on testing products for horsemeat contamination, CBC reports on the strange surprise food authorities in Iceland (the country) got when testing locally-produced meat pies:

[…] Icelandic meat inspector Kjartan Hreinsson says his team didn’t find any horsemeat, but one brand of locally produced beef pie left it stumped: it contained no meat at all.

“That was the peculiar thing,” Hreinsson said in a telephone interview Friday. “It was labelled as beef pie, so it should be beef pie.”

Hreinsson said it appeared to be some kind of vegetable matter. He said the mystery pie was traced to a firm in western Iceland and the case had been handed to municipal authorities.

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