Critical Encounters: Branding trust

By The Columbia Chronicle

Quick. What do Nike’s Air Jordans have in common with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals’ painkiller Bextra? Here’s how I connect the dots.

Early this month, Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. I’m a Michael Jordan fan, so when I missed the televised event, I checked out his remarks on YouTube. While some would carp that Jordan could have been more gracious (and I’d agree with them) —he should have recognized the fans, and he would have been more effective at the podium had he not dissed some of his former colleagues—but my general impression remains undimmed.  Michael Jordan is an admirable man, a role model and a real stand-up guy. But still, the reasoning goes, a shoe is just a commodity, right? Wrong. To us marketers, the name Jordan in Air Jordan is a promise, an emotional connection beyond mere rubber, plastic and cloth.  A brand, is what it is.

And Pfizer’s Bextra? As I learned last week, the U.S. Attorney General’s office levied a record $2.3 billion fine against Pfizer for its fraudulent marketing practices regarding Bextra. This following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s demands in 2005 that Pfizer remove Bextra from the market because of safety concerns.

But in marketing terms, both Air Jordan and Bextra are well-known brands.  And the brand image is a valuable element in marketing the product. It creates the impression that the brand is unique.  It’s what the corporation offers to the marketplace.  For both Air Jordans and the painkiller Bextra, the brands’ images convince the customer to pay prices higher than the cost of producing the shoes or the drug.  It’s a promise to us, the consumer, that rests on an act of mutual trust and faith in the company’s convictions, and perhaps even naively, the belief that they care about us and our well-being.

Air Jordans are the best-selling brand in all the history of athletic shoe-dom. Bextra, once the hot new drug touted by doctors whom it appears were offered kickbacks to endorse the drug, is now a symbol of Pfizer’s decision to put its company’s reputation at risk. Looking at both news stories through my marketing communication lens, I see a brand that has broken the faith with the public.  I see another brand that continues to connect emotionally with its target market. It’s not hard to determine which is which.

Building a brand is not rocket science.  It’s what we marketers do. We know a recognizable brand delivers a clear message about the product or service. It is the sum of a customer’s experience and perceptions.  At its most basic, it is a promise.  And customers accept that promise as an act of faith. Faith in Nike’s word, belief that Air Jordans are well-made, durable and maybe even that tiny fragment of hope that with those shoes on our feet, we too can “be like Mike.”

At another level, the purpose of branding is to build and sustain trust. So what of Pfizer’s decision to put profits ahead of concerns for the patient’s health? What does that say about the other products in Pfizer’s arsenal of medical miracles?  What happens to a company’s reputation, its brand image, when the facts reveal that we have misplaced our faith? We feel cheated, tricked, perhaps a little frightened, wondering what else the pharmaceutical corporations have hidden or haven’t told the public. We decide we can no longer have faith in Pfizer’s claims, even if the FDA endorses their products in the future. Like Humpty Dumpty, we marketing professionals are quick to point out that once broken, a brand image cannot be put back together again. When the facts reveal we have misplaced our faith, therein lies Pfizer’s shame, and Nike’s glory.

Sandra Allen is an Assistant Professor and Director of PR Studies in the Marketing Communication Department.