THURSDAY 3 MAR 2022 2:58 PM


Adam Morton, managing partner, client services at media agency UM, looks at what brands can learn from Boris Johnson's Partygate. He suggests that there is only so much people are willing to forgive, even when they're getting what they want.

Although the tragic developments in Ukraine have distracted the media away from the travails of prime minister Boris Johnson, it's clear that with the partygate scandal, the question of trust has once again come to the forefront of UK politics, and there will be lessons to be learned for brands and marketers.

Trust is often cited as the foundation of any successful relationship, whether between human beings or consumers and brands - and marketers have been trying to perfect the formula for decades.

The evidence, however, suggests the industry is failing to develop the necessary level of trust. The fact the latest Ipsos Veracity Index says the general public expects advertising professionals to be less ‘generally truthful’ than politicians should ring alarm bells.

The Advertising Association created a Trust Action Plan to deal with this challenge, while its latest research is slightly less damning it clearly highlighted there’s still a lot of work to do. At the recent AA Renew event, President Alessandra Bellini admitted as much in her opening address.

(Though, at least in my opinion, it probably didn’t help her case that a speech on how critical trust is to our industry was followed by words from, of all people, Nadine Dorries.)

Partygate and getting Brexit done

Even before Partygate, there was a weight of evidence that highlighted that integrity isn’t Boris’s strong suit. Yet he still delivered a massive Conservative majority. To many voters, this was because ‘brand Boris’, the hair and bombastic character, and his mantra to get Brexit done was all that mattered.

Throughout his tenure, supporters have continually said they were happy to turn a blind eye to his ever-increasing list of alleged sins for that reason. And for them he did get Brexit done.

And he’s not alone in succeeding despite a perceived lack of trust. Facebook often performs badly against trust metrics, but its falling share price has little to do with trust and more with the changing shape of the digital landscape.

Though that said, Meta’s share price crashed a few weeks ago, in great part to the fact Apple made it necessary to opt-in to in-app tracking. Only 4% of US Apple customers have done so, which points to a distrust of advertising. 

While after last year’s accusations of bullying at Brewdog, YouGov’s BrandIndex showed that its reputation scores tanked - but customer purchasing didn’t seem to be adversely affected. It will be interesting to see the same holds true again following the BBC’s recent Truth About Brewdog documentary.

And they’re not the only brands to be doing well despite skeletons in the closet. The Volkswagen emissions scandal was massive, showing the company had deliberately deceived customers in 2015. Some claimants are still seeking compensation, but despite this it remains the second largest motoring manufacturer and has held the number one spot post the ‘Dieselgate’ incident.

As with Boris, it seems that customers who are warm to a brand that serves their particular needs might not feel trust is their primary concern.

Service without trust goes only so far

A lot of marketers will be looking at these examples, and at the PM, and thinking that maybe they shouldn’t put so much stock in trust. Yes, certain brands and categories are built on trust - such as banks, hotel chains and John Lewis - but is it really quite as crucial as our industry would traditionally think?

This is where ‘Partygate’ comes in. The furore that followed the lockdown allegations came from all corners of society, including even the most trenchant Brexiteers. The PM may yet survive it, but the lack of trust has apparently come back to bite him - hard.

It suggests there is only so much people are willing to forgive. And this is the lesson for every brand and marketer looking to build growth through long-term, sustainable relationships.

A brand might entertain, it might provide a useful service, but without trust it will always be vulnerable to its own Partygate. Every time its integrity is called into question, any goodwill it can fall back on is eroded further. VW, for example, may have had a scandal, but it also had decades as a well-trusted brand in its back pocket.

This isn’t to say that Facebook, Brewdog and others are likely to collapse anytime soon. Far from it. But the brands we trust have fewer reasons to look over their shoulder, and can grow relationships for years, or ideally decades, without concern. That has to be worth considering.