It’s time the brand police got tough on the causes of brand crime

A small but critical role of a Head of Brand has forever been to ensure that their business and its associated partners are adhering to correct, consistent and proper use of the brand assets available to them. If necessary we or one of our team are required to intervene in order to make sure something heinous looking or sounding  doesn't make it out of the door into the public domain.

But what about the biggest brand asset of all, the actual product or service being sold? As the horsemeat scandal develops into a full blown supply chain crisis, you may have read the recent headlines about the contents of what certain brands have been making and selling, their very products and services, and shuddered at the thought of a major environmental, health or safety related breach of trust with your customers; the impact this has on your favourability scores, the damage to your businesses share price and the erosion of a reputation that you have nurtured over the months and years.

From what specific ingredients go into your products if you're a food and drink brand, to your damage to the environment if you're a petro-chemical brand, the impacts of an environmental, health or safety related breach of trust can be far reaching. Indeed a major crisis of trust can sometimes spell the end of the line for individual employees, for business areas and occasionally for entire brands themselves, as you know.

In a world where even relatively minor misdemeanours are shared with unforgiving speed around the globe, no brand is safe.

Public trust in all sorts of institutions, including business, as well as politics and the media, has been at an all-time low for a few years, having been eroded by various scandals. The signs are that this trust is stabilising, however, and brand guardians need to do much more to make sure that this trust is respected, fed and watered to ensure it blooms.

Edelman, a corporate affairs agency, have just published their global trust barometer.  "…the number one reason reported for trusting business less over the last year was wrong incentives driving business decisions (28%)"(Source: Edelman Trust barometer 2013).

It is no longer good enough from a governance point of view for brand guardians to claim ignorance of what is going on in their wider business from a reputational and environmental risk perspective. The technology and retail brands employing workers overseas in far eastern supply chains have suffered knocks to their reputations over the welfare of these employees, as have those car brands that end up having to recall a model because of the corporate drive to put out new cars without the nuts and bolts being properly road tested.

It is all very well having a crisis management plan in place but by that time it is often too late and the brand damage is done. Trust in a brand takes an age to develop and moment to destroy. It is the brand team's responsibility to poke their noses in, often where they are not necessarily wanted, to ensure that the organisation is staying honest to its customers and stakeholders, and behaving in a way that is sustainable. Taking responsibility for breaches of trust applies to CEOs as we have seen in the banking and petro-chemical world, and perhaps it should also apply to Heads of Marketing and Brand, who are uniquely positioned with the media budgets at their command to ensure that good governance practices and suitable corporate behaviour is taking place across their organisation and deep into their supply chains, especially with the tools and expertise available to help guide these interrogations and make them relatively simple to conduct - even across a large organisation, its seemingly complex supply chain and into its customers use and disposal of the products or services they buy from you.

Use your detective skills to investigate worrying areas

Environmental, Health & Safety risks are top of many corporate risk registers. These are a classic method of monitoring a variety of risk likelihoods and impact levels within an organisation. Ownership of these registers is often only confined to compliance or company secretariat roles though, which do not traditionally contain the deeper understanding of the brand required to appropriately appraise or score certain risks from a brand damage perspective.

It would be wise for heads of brands to ensure they are involved in the development of the EH&S risks being measured and reviewed and also in the monitoring and scoring process, as they may well be able to spot an impending brand risk sooner than other members of the team.

At this point they need to clearly describe the brand value at risk resulting from the risk identified, and go and communicate this description in writing and verbally to the appropriate colleagues so that they are left in no doubt about the potential consequences if the risk materialises.

In this way wider team members will understand more about the brand risks associated with their activities, the impacts that these can have on their roles, their business areas and the company itself should those risks materialise, and take the appropriate steps to mitigate against them before they happen.

The Carbon Trust can help brand and marketing heads to understand and control the risks to their brand from environmental issues which lie hidden in their supply chains. We also provide independent certification for products and companies that are measuring and reducing their environmental impacts, and help brands to promote these achievements.