We’ve been working with a High St bank and with a large charity. There is an ‘interest dimension’ operating, from those companies felt to act exclusively in their own interests, to the detriment of others (eg debt collectors?) to those who act exclusively in others’ interests (eg a church mission?).
Of course most organisations operate in the middle, acting in their own interests (necessary for survival, of course) and in the interests of key stakeholders, such as consumers. Our theory is that the perceived 'interest balance' of organisations, the extent to which they are seen to value and to act in our (consumers') interests, is increasingly important. Brands must get the symbiotic balance right.
There are perceptual degrees of difference which echo those of biology. In a parasitic relationship, one member of the association benefits while the other is harmed. Then there are different kinds of symbiotic relationships, which ‘lean’ one way or the other. Amensalism is a relationship where one species is inhibited while the other gains. Commensalism is where one benefits and the other is not significantly harmed or helped. Mutualism is the relationship where both parties derive a benefit.
In nature and in the commercial world there are no examples of a species acting in the interests of another species to its own detriment, but the middle area is the key battle ground for hearts and minds. The clear message from our work is that people are happy for an organisation to benefit from their custom as long as (a) the benefit to the organisation is reasonable and visible and (b) they personally benefit at least as much.
Take banks. A local Barclays recently refurbished their branch and handed out balloons to celebrate. Young children love balloons (parent gains), balloons are branded (bank gains). The new branch may allow for faster service (customer gains) and for more sales opportunities (bank gains). Mutualism, you’d think?
But the public suspects that the interest relationship ‘leans towards’ the bank. They selectively remember those occasions where the bank may gain at their expense (eg overdraft charges) and tend to forget that banking is the UK is free.
When people compare banks’ customer service to other (newer) organisations such as mobile phone service providers and retailers, the latter usually win out. And comparisons between eg Microsoft and Facebook or Google make it clear where people feel the ‘interest balance’ lies.
Maybe it is no coincidence that the Marketing Society Brand of the Year, just announced, is John Lewis and the four runners-up all have a strong ‘consumer interest’ story: innocent drinks, Aviva, British Gas and Giffgaff (the brand launched by 02 last year).