Despising beetroot, a guest post about corporate trust

Guest post: Despising beetroot, by Steve Marinker

There is a crisis in corporate trust. We read about it every day.

Consumers have lost faith in big business thanks to multiple corporate betrayals ranging from aggressive tax avoidance to child labour. They’re even losing faith in charities thanks to reported scandals at Kids Company and elsewhere.

But what does the idea of trust in a corporation actually mean? Consumers may profess in surveys to trust Marks & Spencer or Boots, just as they may declare not to trust any utility provider you care to name. But are these really assessments of corporate integrity and honour?

When I was a child I told my father I despised beetroot. You can’t despise beetroot he explained. You may dislike it but to be despised beetroot must be capable of despicable character traits such as selfishness or cowardice or dishonesty.

Can corporations be selfish, cowardly and dishonest? They are surely every bit as inanimate as that beetroot of mine: even more so. At least you can touch, taste and see a beetroot. Corporations are merely legal artefacts.

And yet the idea that corporations are trustable seems to pass without comment or analysis.

The evidence that consumers punish corporations which break a sacred bond of trust is actually rather patchy. Certainly moral outrage courses through social media when a corporate failing is revealed but how often does this lead to profound long term commercial damage?

There is some evidence that businesses which are rated highly for ethical behaviour outperform the stock market but I would be surprised to learn that causality has been irrefutably established.

Beyond that the anecdotal evidence – which is plentiful – tends to present corporate humiliation as proof of value destroyed.

In survey after survey consumers tell us they want to behave ethically and to reward businesses that behave well and punish those that don’t. But when you look for consistent evidence that they follow through it’s hard to find.

What you DO find is that consumers reward businesses which offer great products and services which are marketed smartly and are keenly priced.

Could it be that consumers neither trust nor distrust organisations and businesses? Could it be that when they say they trust M&S they mean simply that their experiences to date have been consistently good?

Politics is different. Here we are most certainly being asked to trust people. But few consumers could name the leaders of our great business institutions.

That being the case, what can it actually mean to say that we no longer trust corporations. Or indeed that we ever did?

It’s a puzzle; not least because I do find myself drawn to the very idea I seem to be debunking. I can’t help but think that people do invest businesses and brands with trust, even though to do so is as irrational as trusting beetroot. Which, by the way, I now love. Crazy irrational love.

By Steve Marinker, Partner and Head of Maitland Corporate.

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