Every year, BrandSpark International ranks the 100 most trusted brands in America. The ranking for 2016's list came out in February. Almost every brand name is recognizable.
Unsurprisingly, a number of these names (or their parent company's) also appear on Ad Age's list of top advertisers. There is arguably a strong connection between the trustworthiness of a brand and the amount of money that is spent advertising the brand's products. While many advertising and PR specialists would praise this fact, I'm less enthusiastic. A lot less. In fact, this concept injures my psyche. Let's face it, the majority of American consumers are relatively unintentional in their shopping. They just buy, based on price, habit, flare or what have you. Conflicting studies suggest that millenials are either the most brand loyal generation or that the majority are just as loyal as their parents. Some studies suggest that consumers in general now lack brand loyalty, in part due to what Armando Azarloza, President of The Axis Agency, calls "moment marketing," and argues that it's "bound to fail."
Consumer buying habits are drastically different from pre-recession days, and in 2013 it was estimated that 1 in 3 Americans practice retail therapy (that being, they shop to reduce or manage stress). Americans are constantly swayed by low prices, coupons and sales (so much so that it can cost the average American big time). More and more experts are suggesting that brands "involve" and "converse" with the millennial generation as millennials flex their buying power. They can do this all the while the average consumer is groomed for brand loyalty (American or otherwise) from childhood.
Here's the issue, though: brands can thrive in ignorance. As many Americans buy "what they've always bought" or "what their parents bought," this allows brands to own the power that actually belongs to the consumer. Public incidents can be spun and/or swept under the rug with little public pushback while the average consumer continues to buy the same or similar products (despite the angry Facebook post claiming that he or she was incredibly disappointed with the company's actions).
In regards to the "most trusted brands of 2016," some of these brands have incredibly questionable practices. Below are a few significant examples.
- Hershey's use of slave labor in its cocoa supply chain.
- Kellogg's lobbying to prevent GMO-labeling in Oregon, California and Washington.
- Monster Energy Drink's link to adverse health risks.
- Coca-Cola's hazardous effects on India's agriculture.
- Coppertone's use of oxybenzone in its sunscreens, which can cause hormonal defects.
- Axe Body Spray's use of harsh chemicals and synthetic fragrances.
- Slim-Fast's use of sugar and its poor glycemic profile.
- Febreze's use of harmful chemicals.
- Purina allegedly being responsible for thousands of dogs' deaths.
- Gerber's reluctant introduction of a non-GMO baby formula line that's possibly not non-GMO.
- Harmful chemicals being present in Huggies's (and others') diapers.
- Fisher-Price repeatedly allowing lead paint in their toys.
These are just a few examples of the many careless, inappropriate and all-around horrible decisions made by brands. Now let me qualify that even the best and most ethical of brands and companies sometimes make mistakes. No brand is immune from bad choices. However, there is a difference between an isolated incident or a slip-up and an unchanging business model or ingredient list. Coppertone is not about to stop using oxybenzone and Colgate/Dove/Head & Shoulders/Old Spice/any personal care brand is not likely to stop using sodium lauryl sulfate. Gap is unlikely to stop relying on sweatshops and child labor to produce its overrated and struggling clothing lines. Too many clothing brands rely on cheap labor as part of its business model. John Oliver breaks this down on Last Week Tonight, which you can (and should) view below. Unfortunately, most consumers don't care (or at least, they care but not enough, as they ignore it when they see a cute shirt on sale). They're too busy "not thinking" about what they're buying and haphazardly spending money on what mommy and daddy bought, what's cheap or what's accessible.
I've made many arguments (in person and in the digital realm) endorsing capitalism as this amazing force for empowerment. However, capitalism can't do its job without an informed and intentional buying power behind it. Millennials are more socially conscious than any other generation; however, we still have a long way to go. There is no excuse for the use of child slave labor or harsh chemicals in a brand's production or supply lines. Sustainable and innovative alternatives are constantly presenting themselves. Heck, there are so many alternatives present now (see Krochet Kids and Everlane as smart business models for clothing, Equal Exchange for fairly traded coffee and tea, The Honest Company or Seventh Generation for safe, plant-based cleaners and Theo for organically and fairly sourced chocolate). The difference between an ethical and trustworthy brand and a socially irresponsible brand isn't just in advertising dollars; ethical businesses are built with ethics in mind from the bottom up and often led by a CEO contributing to a socially-conscious company culture from the top down. This isn't corporate social responsibility or public charity for the sake of good PR; rather, it is a business focused on doing good for the sake of doing good (rather than just hoarding profits). But without a demanding consumership, brands and businesses will continue to profit from our ignorance. One of the greatest attributes of capitalism is the power it gives to the people. We must demand more from brands. It's incredibly sad that these are the most trusted brands; these brands are responsible (at least in-part) for countless illnesses and environmental problems.
A capitalistic society is driven by innovation. Man can create and discover new ways to power the world. But when the money, for example, is in oil and gas, the wealthy and powerful will do whatever it takes to continue to power the world with outdated technology and line their pockets while doing it (regardless of the effects it's having on the world at large). I live in Oklahoma. It's no secret that Mary Fallin was basically bought and paid for by the oil industry, Oklahoma's greatest economic driver. The growth of fracking and the increase in the number of earthquakes is a strange "coincidence." (My favorite episode of Fallin refusing to make the connection between earthquakes and fracking can be viewed here). Crony capitalism is sure to stifle innovation and growth. Consumers cannot rely on politicians or a company's spokesperson to keep them informed in order to make smart purchases. It is not a good sign that the top advertisers and top lobbyists are "coincidentally" the most trusted brands.
Consumers must take responsibility for themselves. Read the label. Research the ingredients. Stay informed. Be intentional. Make a difference.
*Header photo courtesy of Lin Davis, photo captured by Petr Lovigin in Aqua Branca (Brazil).