The Future of the Eskom Brand (Lori Levitan)
The currency of brand trust has increased in value over the latter part of the 20th century as the functional differences between the goods and services on offer from competing providers become harder to identify. Living in uncertain times has also significantly altered the attributes people ascribe to being ‘trustworthy’.
As trust is a core element of branding, let’s re-visit the most dramatic ‘trust bust’ in the South African commercial arena in recent times, Eskom.
Everyone has experienced ‘load shedding’ first hand and many have had their say on how things should have been handled, with the advantage of hindsight. What can the company do now to rebuild trust in the eyes of its profoundly sceptical consumers?
A number of people in the advertising, PR and branding industries were asked, “What would you do to rebrand Eskom in order to re-establish brand trust, bearing in mind that you cannot change the situation on the ground overnight?” Here is one comment, from a “creative”, not very instructive but indicative of how negative some people are feeling. “I think that if many agencies were offered the Eskom business, they might turn the utility away. The negative press associated with defending a brand that has seemingly misled the commercial and residential public could be damaging, especially considering how closely that debate
is tied to emigration, the brain drain, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and South Africa’s ability to ‘not go the way of Zimbabwe’.”
This is not the opinion of the author or the agency, but the perception is out there. No vibrant change of colour, no shiny new logo and no slick, new pay-off line will work right now. As Jonathan Knowles, senior vicepresident at Brand Economics notes, “Reliability, integrity, empathy and familiarity are four of the dimensions on which trust is built.” By not adhering to these tenets, Eskom is facing load shedding of its own; that of its credibility.
Brand vs. Reputation
The words ‘brand’ and ‘reputation’ are often used interchangeably. While similar, there are nuances that differentiate the two.
‘Brand’ relates to who you are, a corporation, a product or a person, and the emotional and functional experience that others have with you. ‘Reputation’ is how that experience is interpreted over time, such as admiration, indifference or scepticism. If a consumer has a positive experience with your brand and that experience is consistent, a reputation of trust begins to evolve. The richer the ‘trust bank’ becomes, the harder it is to empty the bank when an organisation rides the inevitable reputation rollercoaster.
Trust vs Confidence
If the brand is what you stand for, and reputation is a positive experience of that brand over time, then the next natural steps are trust and confidence. Brand trust is the first stage. It’s based on a positive experience and, to an extent, can be considered a form of faith. Brand confidence suggests that trust is already innate. For a services brand, it’s often tougher to re-establish trust and confidence than it would be for a product brand. This is primarily due to the degree of involvement or dependency of customers with a vital service versus a product, hence the added challenge for Eskom. Interestingly, a number of local companies have used Eskom’s misfortune as an opportunity to build trust and reinforce confidence in their
own brands. By taking advantage of a crisis situation, they have innovatively turned a negative into a positive.
Europa, the café chain, has developed a special ‘load shedding menu’ during power outages. An aerial laser surveying firm, Southern
Mapping Company, is sponsoring solar-powered traffic lights in Gauteng. Radio station, Jacaranda 94.2, has designed an active load
shedding page and banner on its web site. It offers listeners detailed guides on load shedding schedules and allows listeners to submit energy saving tips online.
Outsurance, the insurance company, has deployed well-branded ‘pointsmen’ at key intersections during power outages. FNB’s eBucks loyalty programme offers customers the choice of using points for the household purchase du jour, the generator.
These brands enhance confidence and solidify trust by entrenching themselves in the daily lives of people. At the end of the day, brands are embedded in the trust that the consumers place in them. This trust is fundamental, without it, you do not have confidence and you do not have faith.
In the business world, trust represents a competitive advantage, infinitely exploitable and virtually impossible to replicate. Without the requisite accountability, however, it’s easy to lose and far more difficult to regain. So to build trust, companies should focus on their performance in these fields:
Accountability: It’s clear that stakeholders trust institutions which are seen to be contributing towards the best interests of society. Indeed,
many businesses have realigned their brand image with stakeholder expectations. However, for sustainable trust to be generated, businesses need to be accountable for delivery on all elements of their promises.
Transparency: Today’s ’spin-aware’ consumer is proficient at examining brands and looking for discontinuity between the information received from external sources and that embodied by the brand. The difference or similarity between the two is a measure of transparency and a way that stakeholders judge responsibility and accountability.
Receptiveness: Major corporations face the risk of being perceived as arrogant and unpopular, not because of their virtue or their brand imagery, but simply because of their size. Many have responded by initiating advertising campaigns. A better approach could be to do something completely un-arrogant, like simply taking off the headphones and listening.
The ‘Six Cs’ listed below can also provide a quick checklist of the areas that most companies need to examine, according to renowned global consultancy, McKinsey&Company:
• Clarity – how clearly the message is delivered is often as important as the nature of the message itself.
• Consistency – under promise and over deliver.
• Culture – live up to your value statements.
• Come clean – small print in annual reports or customer contracts generates suspicion.
• Caring – hire people only with a positive attitude towards customers and co-workers.
• Community Involvement – trustworthy companies care about the vibrancy of the communities in which they operate.
Eskom and Brand Trust
Against this backdrop, how could Eskom claw back its brand trust and start building a degree of confidence? Here are some of the more positive suggestions from the survey mentioned:
• Make information accessible and accurate.
• Be proactive and pre-emptive instead of reactive as we’ve seen.
• Address the internal brand, get management down to the coalface and initiate constant employee communication to curb misinformation and vindictiveness.
• Invest in a tone of voice strategy to create a brand language that people respond to positively. Some of Eskom’s radio ads actually have
a threatening tone of voice, others sound like they are even blaming their customers for the situation.
• Do not give the impression of a big spend for public relations or advertising.
• Communicate realistic timelines for improvements.
• Help customers with frequent information on how to conserve power and subsidise energy reducing solutions such as solarpowered
• Accept responsibility and outline what they are doing to fix the problem in the short, medium and long term.
• Develop a campaign that focuses on what is going right.
• Align with other investment/ development bodies that are driving the positive future of SA (Gautrain, 2010) and position what Eskom is actually doing to support them.
Never too late
If Eskom can show concern, be responsive and behave in a way that demonstrates this, it could be a brand that agencies would love to work on;
after all, everyone loves a challenge.
With trust as the competitive advantage of the 21st century, what practical steps can brand and business managers take to build it? As with most virtues, the key lies in actions rather than words. Start with a review of current practices from the perspective of the four dimensions of reliability, integrity, empathy and familiarity. The aim is to eliminate behaviours that may be damaging your perceived trustworthiness and identify behaviours that actively promote it constantly.
Lori Levitan is an Account Director at HKLM. She holds an Honours Degree in Marketing Communications from University of Johannesburg (RAU) with a thesis focusing on brand equity and corporate identity. Lori has a background in advertising at TBWA Hunt Lascaris and Brand Strategy at Interbrand Sampson; her portfolio has included brands such as BMW, Masterfoods, Liberty Life, MTN, Windhoek, Pearl Valley Golf Estates and Standard Bank to name a few.