The Consumer Trust Crisis:
How package structure can help build brand confidence
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
Consumer trust of major public corporations is at an all-time low. Both retailers and manufacturers are seeing their reputations suffer and their brand trust decline. Some contributing factors are beyond brand manager control, but many are not. What do consumers say about how corporations have let them down? What are the forces within the consumer experience that have led to their deepening disappointment? To the point of this publication, what can packaging innovation do to help pull consumer trust off a slippery slope?
The issue of consumer trust is a mile wide, and very complex. It ranges from information privacy to product performance. Potential touch-points include advertising, direct marketing, customer service, in-store interaction, in-use experience, the media, government, word-of-mouth, the Internet, and on and on. No brand, no matter how powerful, is immune to trust erosion if these touch-points are mismanaged.
Consumers are rightfully cynical. They’ve witnessed shameless product placement efforts in entertainment. They’ve read about abusive labor practices among powerful retailers. They’ve seen nebulous ads compelling them to “ask their doctor” if medications are right for them. They’ve waited hours on customer service lines for representatives who aren’t empowered to fix their problem. They know about “cookies” and “spyware” planted in their computers. They’ve watched as CEOs line up in courtrooms for a chance at confinement. And, they’ve seen their favorite consumer products shrink in volume in an effort to hold prices.
What have they told us about all this? A recent study by the Benenson Strategy Group found that 61 percent of consumers say their trust in public companies has declined, while only a third say it has stayed the same since the recent corporate ethics scandals. A recent Yankelovich study found that a stunning two-thirds of those polled said the level of ethical behavior on the part of U.S. corporations is worse than ever. Here, almost 70 percent of consumers said that product quality is slipping and that big business will take advantage of the public where there’s little risk in doing so. Government and politicians don’t fare any better, by the way.
Achieving brand protection
So, what dimensions do consumers value in deciding whether to trust a company or brand? Several studies show that the customer service/product experience always comes out on top, followed closely by the length of relationship and product reputation. When things go bad for a consumer, they tell many more people about it than when things go well. Of course, this is changing as poor service becomes the standard-issue experience and competent product or service performance becomes the newsworthy exception.
Clearly, trust between corporation and consumer is built over time, just as it is in any relationship. But, unlike the relationships we build with family and friends, trust in a brand or product can be damaged by a single event. This lends a profound new meaning to the term “protecting a brand”. One could argue that the brand management system adopted by many consumer products companies can undermine consumer trust. Brand managers rotate through businesses so fast that they may never properly understand the brand’s DNA. As well, they are motivated to grow businesses quickly before their next assignment, resulting in the occasional compromise to brand values and equities. Today’s business pressures and constraints may work against efforts to build mutually beneficial relationships with consumers.
With regard to trust in product information provided by companies, the data is clear. Advertising is (by far) the least credible source of information for consumers. Yankelovich reports that 86 percent of consumers don’t find communications messages relevant to their needs, and 45 percent say advertising actually detracts from their everyday quality of life. Yikes!
In an effort to drive sales today, companies have largely given up on what we used to call “institutional” advertising. For those too young to remember, these campaigns were focused on building positive feelings about brands and companies without the sales push. One notable recent exception is the work Sam Johnson did for his namesake company, S.C. Johnson. His emphasis on family commitment was long on trust-building and short on selling more Pledge. Of course, S.C. Johnson is a private company and not vulnerable to the same pressures as P&G.
Consumers are beginning to look skeptically beyond advertised benefits to value effective leadership, a stance on certain issues and a willingness to back up promises. They are asking for “institutional” advertising they can believe in. Not surprisingly, very few consumers are inclined to trust products just because they have attractive or appealing packaging. They rely on experience: their own, those of friends and family members and those of reputable third parties.
Recognize the individual
Why care about consumer trust, anyway? After all, your job is to sell product—NOW. Well, because your ability to command a price premium depends on it. As does your freedom to spin off successful brand extensions.
You’re thinking that building consumer trust is a larger corporate initiative that can’t possibly impact, in the near term, your brand and consumer. That’s not entirely true. Consumers are looking for you to demonstrate that you understand their unique needs and are willing to meet them in a personalized way. That might mean incremental content that has real value, or methods to customize their products in ways that say “it’s just for me”.  
Some companies have recognized the value of building relationships through offerings such as recipes and other content on web sites and by providing portioning information on packaging. Nothing shows respect for a relationship more than individual recognition, respect and offers to help in ways that suggest you’re on the consumer’s side for the long haul.
Here’s where package structure can help. As advertising becomes less credible and corporate behavior less exemplary, package structure can provide brand support at the point where decisions are made. And, package structure is uniquely qualified to promise and deliver tangible benefits in a transparent, immediate and personal way. Here are three intriguing tools that marketers use to demonstrate their respect for and understanding of consumers.
1. Consider the lowly label as a strategic way to build a relationship. That back panel has always been a benign way to provide mandated information in a minimally distracting format. Structural solutions can drive interaction at the point of sale with personalized sources of information, tangible benefits and even enhanced functionality. Advertising can’t do any of that.
2. Use package structure to customize the experience consumers have with your product. Blending, dosing and applying in a personalized way can convince consumers that they can experience your product in the way that works best for them. Help in finding the “formula” or “setting” that performs best for them establishes an emotional bond that builds loyalty and trust.
3. Look for ways to take an ethical stand that is relevant to your product. Perhaps an extended after-life for the packaging can prolong the experience consumers have with it and make them feel better about throwing it away. Or, packaging that is evidently crushable or recyclable can make everyone feel better about making it, using it and disposing of it.
Building trust in a company or a brand is a journey, based on the aggregate and consistent experience consumers have with your product. Major manufacturers have invested decades in nurturing, protecting and projecting their brand attributes. There is no real shortcut to building loyalty and brand value. However, package structure innovation can be a strategic tool that creates personal dialogue and demonstrates the respect consumers want, fitting nicely into a plan for leveraging earned trust. BP
Jim Warner and Ken Miller are Managing Partners at One80 Design, a product and package innovation firm in New York City. Jim lends creative concept development and implementation for client programs. Ken focuses on research methodology and marketing strategy to provide focused design direction for the creative teams. Contact Jim and Ken at 212.268.1801 or visit
Paper Bottle Communicates Natural Freshness
Everyone knows that landfills are packed with plastic bottles waiting for their half-life to expire. That’s because not all plastics are recyclable, and many that are never reach recycling centers. Clearly, a beverage company that could reinforce efficient recyclability for its containers would be held in high esteem by the public. How might they do that? The Eco-Bottle—a paper bottle!
Sure it’s a bit far fetched, but not too far from potential reality. This bottle is constructed from die-cut, mandril-formed paperboard, with a barrier film lining. When folded, the sides meet and are interlocked and crimped to become water tight. From the outside, the bottle looks virtually seamless, without the flashing that plagues pouches. That allows more latitude for distinct aesthetic forms. And, the form constraints of a blown bottle no longer apply.
The Eco-Bottle is not the right choice for carbonated or hot-fill beverages, but someday could be just the thing for fresh juices and similar products. The use of paperboard can even suggest natural freshness, avoiding the more artificial imagery of some beverages bottled in plastic. And the ecological benefits are obvious. Aside from the closure, the bottle crushes down to almost nothing and is evidently recyclable. That message comes across loud and clear at the point of sale, with natural freshness as an imagery kicker.
The beverage company that takes on the Eco-Bottle challenge will be richly rewarded. It’s an opportunity to stake out a clear social responsibility message, and get some powerful shelf impact benefits on the side.
Sprayer Delivers on “All-Purpose” Promise
Many household cleaners promise “all-purpose” performance. But any clean freak will tell you that the same product that provides streak-free windows doesn’t work as well when scrubbing tub and tile.
The Vari-Clean Sprayer restores consumer faith in the “all-purpose” promise in a tangible, intuitive way. It gives control back to the user, allowing her to easily mix the right cleaning formula for the job at hand. The core of the idea is a unique spray head that stores and dispenses an “additive” cleanser in combination with the primary formula in a basic spray bottle.
For cleaning a given surface, say glass, the standard trigger dispenses the primary liquid formula, just like the typical spray bottle. For another surface, say tub and tile, the user can flick a secondary lever down to release a metered amount of the “additive” into a mixing chamber within the spray head. The standard trigger then dispenses the mixture.
The additive might include abrasive particles to perform better on specific surfaces. Or, it might contain a grease cutter to work better in the kitchen. As the key benefit, the consumer can customize the cleaning solution to fit the surface and degree of cleaning required. That’s true “all-purpose” cleaning.
The Vari-Clean Sprayer can increase consumer confidence in a household cleaning brand with customized performance that truly delivers on the “all-purpose” promise.