Independent butchers and farm shops have reported a 75% increase in sales in the month following the start of the horsemeat scandal which indicates that, wherever culpability may lie, some brands and retailers are losing the trust of the consumer.
That’s likely to be a temporary phenomenon with consumers expected to return to the leading brands for their meat and their ready meals once faith has been restored in the supply chain. But imagine for a moment that it isn’t temporary and imagine again that the decision to switch suppliers or brands extends beyond processed meat products into other areas. Would this breach of brand loyalty matter? And, if so, why?
The brand–consumer relationship is like any other. It exists on mutual shared interest and trust. In the same way that it is difficult to pin-point exactly what the attraction is between partners, so the brand consumer relationship is about the totality of the shared experience between the two. It is about the quality of the product, for sure, but it is also about more ephemeral factors, including how the brand makes you feel, what you think it says about you and about the reliability of that brand as a partner. Once you begin to question the reliability or the quality of the brand or its products, relationship breakdown is a real possibility – and counselling may be needed to put the relationship back on track.
In this instance, researchers can act as the counsellors. We are well equipped through a variety of techniques – from experiential-style focus groups, through structured online surveys carefully designed to elicit both a high quantity and quality of response, and even observational research and in-home interviewing – to help establish not only what the consumer feels about the brand or the product, but also what it expects from the brand or the product in order to consider re-engaging in the relationship.
Situations like ‘horsegate’ not only anger, worry and even frighten consumers, they also empower them. Ultimately, these empowered consumers will be the ones to decide when brands have regained their trust. In such situations they often look for and act on the advice of others: family, friends and sometimes strangers.
The media will bombard them with information and opinions that will also influence their views. Brands need to consider how consumers engage in social communities, online and offline, to share ideas and views. If brands can listen, learn, adapt and prove they have done so within these changing rules, then they may be able to win the consumer back. And the fact that the brand has taken the first step in seeking that reconciliation with the consumer could be the first step towards a bright new future together.