"Promote and protect." Richard Edelman - the chief executive of the eponymous, and world's biggest, PR network - summed it up perfectly for me over breakfast this week. It was the day before the World Economic Forum in Davos and the launch of Edelman's Trust Barometer, the biggest survey into levels of public trust.
The New Yorker has built his $750 million agency on the correct premise that organisations increasingly need the right blend of brand promotion and reputation management. So while Bellwether shows that traditional PR spend may be falling, Edelman’s growth has come from where international brand spend is growing fastest: in organisational, conversational marketing.
Neglecting this formula has dire consequences. For example, the 2014 Barometer shows that public trust in energy companies has fallen six points over the past year, to just 32 per cent of people. So, despite investing record sums in advertising and promotion, companies such as EDF and British Gas now experience trust levels in joint last place with the banking industry.
The whole sentiment – indeed, the entire organisation – behind the brand must be open, committed, consistent
And, crucially, this impacts the bottom line. The survey shows that more than half of Britons would actively boycott companies they don’t trust; that they will badmouth these brands on social media; and that 73 per cent demand greater regulation of energy companies.
In other words, the energy industry has forgotten the "protection" bit. A recent Which? survey shows that customer satisfaction is at rock bottom. And senior management of these brands are tied up explaining the inept response – both operationally and in comms terms – over the difficult festive period.
Smarter companies now have the "protect" piece embedded in most marketing programmes. Unilever is the prime example. From Dove’s "real women" to Project Sunlight, there is a social responsibility ethic tied into the brand promotion.
This is not to say that advertising should become worthy and dull. If it looks like gratuitous "CSR", punters will turn away and the media will be gunning for you.
The whole sentiment – indeed, the entire organisation – behind the brand must be open, committed and consistent. In this sense, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s are on the right track. It’s about powerful, creative promotion integrated with intelligent, strategic protection.
The theme at Davos has been "reinvestment". Cash-rich companies in the developed world are ready to spend again. But, unlike the last decade, the requirement is not so much about investment in physical assets. Today, the investment needed is in people and brands. Companies need to focus this on persuading us of their competitive edge, their character and their integrity.
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