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Corporate America--the brand--may well be grappling for years to come with the damage it suffered as a result of the transgressions that came to a head in 2002. The challenge business now faces is restoring public trust, overcoming the negative associations that have become linked with the brand.

Enron, Arthur Andersen, Tyco, and Worldcom were among those that cemented the characteristic of greed that has become firmly associated with the corporate America brand promise.

But many other corporations have compounded the damage by ably demonstrating its other representations. One of the more notable is that of questionable--if not illegal--business practices, manifested by vastly overstated (and now being restated) earnings and heavy use of stock options to wildly inflate CEO salaries.

Here's the rub, though. The public's expectations of the Corporate America brand probably weren't too high to begin with.

A mid-2002 Gallup poll had only 20% of Americans expressing confidence in big business. But that figure was not that much higher at 28% a year earlier, before the scandals erupted.

Interestingly, it has been government leaders--not business leaders--who have called for reforms, making a show of carting of executive “criminals” in handcuffs to the pokey in a bid restore the public's trust in our economic system.

In fact, the task of restoring trust in Corporate America and the companies that comprise it should fall to business leaders, not government leaders. And while the process is not unlike that of rebuilding a product or service brand, it is substantially more onerous, time-consuming and, when all's said and done, elusive.

Yet, the more it's done individually, the better the odds that the bad apples will be considered the exception to the rule.

Trust is something that neither a marketing team nor an executive team can take aim at directly. The person who says, “Trust me” is usually the last person to be trusted if the deeds haven't supported the words.

Restoring trust in Corporate America and the companies that comprise it will require deeds, as demonstrated through the three components of a trust-based relationship:

  1. Offering proof that you are capable of what you claim to do.
  2. Showing transparency of your motivation.
  3. Demonstrating your reliability through consistent performance over time.

Capability might be the easiest to address. It's all about competence.

At the company level, it's about your products or services being at least as good as the competition. For most, this is the price of entry into their business category. And most are focused on making the best product or offering the best service possible, given costs and other constraints.

Conveying motivation is, of course, a bit trickier. Transparency about the business you're in, what you stand for, how you make money and how much you make, all build confidence that your motivations jive with those of your shareholders and customers.

All your stakeholders understand that companies are typically in business to make money. They just don't want to be taken advantage of. Conveying the value received for the price paid, and the fact that you're in it for the long haul are increasingly important to the public.

What takes time to demonstrate is the reliability factor. It is perceived through consistent interactions with the company and brand, and requires repeated exposure. It also takes many forms, ranging from on-time delivery performance, a firm link to product quality, or in the way customers are treated before, during and after purchase.

Only over time and through consistent delivery on all three fronts can customer and public trust be re-established, and even then, it's not guaranteed.

But the most astute business leadership teams will recognize the challenge and develop proof points around the three areas--starting the process of restoring trust in larger brand of Corporate America.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Judy Hopelain Ms. Hopelain is a Partner with San Francisco office of Prophet (www.prophet.com), a leading consulting firm specializing in brand and business strategy.