As consumer sentiment toward institutions, businesses and brands continues to evolve, how can brands earn their trust in this fast-changing environment?
We are conducting something of an experiment in the Harris household at present. My wife went back to work at the start of last month after an eight-year pause (if you can call the production, sustenance and organisation of three children a 'pause'). She's back in the City, doing something unfathomable with bonds that she keeps trying to explain to me, in ever-simpler terms.
The starter motor fritzed, stranding me in rural Surrey without a pot to piss in
It's a rare and little-known fact that while one arm of that place has been selling iffy investments to people who should have known better, the other has been building a comprehensive support network for mums who want to go back to work, known colloquially as a 'returnship path'.
While this is only to be encouraged, it does leave me dependent on my 32-year-old Lightweight Land Rover as sole means of transport. It started out life in a different technological era, ferrying marines around the beaches and lanes of Plymouth, was retired from active service about 15 years ago, and has been my runabout since then. It holds a deeply romantic attachment for me, in a way I can't really explain, and placing my trust in it as a way of getting to and from the station seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.
From problem to panacea
For those of you unfamiliar with the Lightweight, it's the most basic of machines. In an effort to reduce the weight such that it could be slung under a helicopter, the Army removed all padding, soundproofing and any trace of comfort. It left behind an array of sharp-edged, metallic surfaces all within easy gouging reach; big, thick Army tyres that chew petrol and hum loudly; and a recommended top speed of 45mph inscribed on a metal plate on the dashboard. It's the only car that you can make an exact scale replica of in Lego bricks, using only regular green blocks. There's not a smooth line to be seen. It's wonderful.
These days we see technology as the solution to almost any problem
All was fine for the first week, but then at 11.45pm, after a late night out at the Marketing Group of Great Britain, the starter motor fritzed, stranding me in rural Surrey without a pot to piss in. As I spent 10 minutes, in my dinner suit, determinedly cranking the starting handle, interspersed by frantic dashes to pump the accelerator pedal before the spluttering died out, it led me to wonder whether there was, indeed, a better way.
The obvious next step is to buy a new car (or a newer one) and solve the problem using technology. Those of us of a certain age still remember a time when being late for school was a regular occurrence, with an even more regular excuse: "Sorry, Sir, my mum's car wouldn't start." In the 1970s and 80s, cars were terribly unreliable and poorly built. Now, however, we assume they will work - and, for the most part, they do. (I smile at the modern craze for stop-start technology in cars at traffic lights. My Land Rover had that 30 years ago. It's called stalling.)
Technology wasn't always thought of as this panacea. Around the mid-90s, many people were afraid of it and the world it heralded. So, while Orange sought to reassure ('The future's bright. The future's Orange'), BT wanted to be your guide to new technology, and adopted the diminutive figure of ET to personify that ambition. Both those positions seem so very dated today.
These days we see technology as the solution to almost any problem. You're one Dunlop Green Flash short of a pair? EBay is your answer. You want the nicotine from smoking, but not the tar from cigarettes? No problem; let's invent the e-cigarette. Getting bored of carrying dirty, cumbersome cash? Here's a contactless-payment product for you. Not only do we embrace technology, for the most part, but we also trust it with our finances, tunes, pictures and even our lives.
Compare that with our trust in institutions and people, which is at an all-time low. Over the past five years, in particular, there has been a dramatic and wide-ranging landslide of trust in what were once bastions of our society, too numerous to list here.
When you take a black cab in London, in any £10 fare, £8 is the cost of the driver and insurance and £2 is the cost of the car and servicing
Bringing the argument back to my Land Rover for a moment, when I took it in to the garage and they fixed the starter motor, only for it to go wrong again in equally inauspicious circumstances, my first reaction was to assume they had screwed up, rather than the car. It's human error that we blame now, not the machines.
All this seems to be merely a warm-up act for a truly complex period in the next decade or two. Our children will almost certainly trust machines more than people. They will look around and compare human frailty with technological certainty, and why not?
A New York friend told me that when you take a black cab in London, in any £10 fare, £8 is the cost of the driver and insurance and £2 is the cost of the car and servicing. To the eagle-eyed California venture-capitalist looking to roll out driverless cars, that's too big an opportunity to miss. Where else could you undercut the price of the incumbent competition by 50% and still make more than 100% mark-up? The economics of the situation will drive the practicality, and once they figure out how to recreate the world-class grumpiness of the London cabbie, driverless cabs will be everywhere.
What this does to brands is anyone's guess. Somehow we seem to segregate the corporation (hateful, conniving, deceptive) from the product (helpful, enabling, indispensable). Try it with a few of your hated companies versus trusted applications: you'll find it generally holds true. Brands seem to sit somewhere in the middle, part product or service and part company. The separation of those layers (corporation, brand, application) has never been so tricky, or so vital.
And where does that leave my dear old trusted Lightweight? Stuck at the side of the road waiting for someone to stop and give me a jump-start. Again.