Not so long ago, big institutions played an integral part in many people’s everyday lives. As a society, we used to trust big business, big banks, the church, or the state believing that they had our best interests at heart.
Let’s not forget, this was at a time when the world was – in many ways – a simpler, less questioning place. However, these days everyone has a megaphone to validify their opinions and the proliferation of millions of dissenting voices has enabled consumers to challenge big brands like never before.
It’s one of the reasons big institutions have in recent years fallen in our estimation. First, it was the banks, then the utility companies, and now it’s the turn of big tech.
A spotlight has been shone on their practices and – in many instances – we have found that they aren’t as magnanimous as we once thought they were. Trust has been eroded, and, as the world has become ever more complex and diverse, it has become harder for big brands to navigate the world under one single narrative.
The appeal of ‘big’
If we go back to the beginning, what made big brilliant in the first place was a sense of trust amongst consumers, that these brands had their back, and were ultimately operating for the greater good. Today, there do, of course, remain several examples of big businesses doing good, such as in the retail or FMCG sectors, where large organisations are able to build trust through the frequency of use with products. Think John Lewis or Unilever, both organisations which trade-off familiarity in order to build trust with their consumers.
At the same time, large organisations can offer a sense of security and stability that disruptive, challenger brands simply can’t. Unlike their more agile competitors, big institutions can offer a calm, steadying hand that says ‘We’ve got this’. And in this era of rising inflation and economic uncertainty, never has there been a greater need for brands to support consumers in this way.
Downfall of the tech titans
During their meteoric rise, the likes of Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook all seemed to promise so much. Here were massive businesses capable of changing the world, all on a seemingly irresistible trajectory. Turns out, however, they weren’t on our side after all, or perhaps they never were, we just assumed they were. Perhaps that was the problem all along.
These tech giants have evolved from challengers and disruptors in their industry to becoming the system itself, yet we are now seeing a fall in consumer confidence and share prices tumbling. Perhaps there was too much unrealistic expectation placed on these brands and what they could do.
As consumers, we must ask ourselves whether we are guilty of transferring our hopes onto these brands. Is it even possible for large organisations to be ‘good’, and does their size and scale ultimately mean that someone, somewhere is always going to get hurt?
The curse of a founder’s personality
When trying to unpick a brand’s fall from grace, all too often there’s a common denominator: the personality of its founder. The relationship they have with the brand is often intrinsic to its early success – think Branson and Virgin, Apple and Jobs. However, there is something strange that happens along the way where these founders often turn out not to be the knight in shining armour that we thought they were.
Open the papers and you’ll find almost daily stories of founders attracting controversy to the brand they founded. Elon Musk and Tesla spring to mind, as does Adam Neumann and WeWork. Travis Kallanick and Uber or Elizabeth Holmes and Thernanos, the list goes on…
In truth, a big brand that is led by a board rather than a founder is far more likely to be doing better and maintaining trust among its customers.
Rediscovering faith in big brands
Brands are today operating against the backdrop of major challenges on a global scale, from financial and reputational to environmental. And in these increasingly turbulent times, the stark reality is that consumers are reconsidering their choices and priorities more than ever before.
Within all this, however, there is a real opportunity for big brands to come forward and offer that sense of stability and security. They are uniquely positioned to reassure and steady the ship, to tell us it’s going to be OK because let’s face it, that isn’t going to come from the government.
The only way out of the economic doldrums we find ourselves in once again is through growth, and big business can be a key driver of growth. So, now is the time for big to step forward, to show its benevolence, not malevolence, and to rediscover its place in the public’s consciousness.