Opportunity in mistrust as damaging poll revealed

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 A new poll for the Financial Times has revealed widespread mistrust of big business. That risks a political and social backlash, but not everything in the poll is bad news for companies. 

Based on the 4,111 people polled, anti-business sentiment spans all three major parties. Of self-identified Conservative Party supporters, 50 percent expressed their desire for tough action on big business. For Labour the figure was 72 percent, while 63 percent of Lib Dems felt the same. That should worry big business because – as seen with benefits and crime policy – what constitutes ‘tough’ often escalates over years of electoral competition.

So the risk for business, and for the country, is clear: the public want their elected representatives to punish business for perceived unfairness, greed and irresponsibility. Even if politicians resist the natural temptation to give the public what pollsters say they want, the consequences may still be severe. Pro-business policies will be less likely to gain traction while the public feels this way, and business expertise on matters like employment law or EU membership is likely to be widely ignored or condemned.

So what was the positive in this poll? Well, be they Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem, a majority of respondents said they were pleased parties were campaigning on plans to change business culture. That may not sound positive to those unmoved by the economic earthquake of the last few years, but for many companies it points their way to their future success.

Be it bonus culture in the City, escalating energy prices or the sale of horse meat by supermarkets, it is telling that people want change, not just punishment. Indeed, those companies that embody a new way of doing business are likely to be supported by politicians and customers whether most companies change their ways or not. 

This is reflected by the FT’s reporting that public trust is higher with supermarkets and airlines than energy firms and financial services. All four of those sectors have had some bad headlines in recent times, but it seems the public do not see big business as an amorphous blob of bad practice. The public does differentiate – even between big sectors dominated by similarly small numbers of large companies. 

That is key to rebuilding trust. If the public is willing to recognise differences between sectors, then it will recognise differences between brands. That means there is nothing inevitable about the public disliking business and there is no reason to be complacent or defeatist. Instead, businesses across all sectors should grasp the opportunity demonstrate how they are different, and to change where they have got things wrong in the past.  

After all, with Ovo trying to ‘open source’ the energy sector, and Waitrose advertising its unusual ownership model, the groundwork is already being laid. Some companies are very publicly changing the way business is done, and the way it is seen to be done. This poll for the FT suggests there is a strong appetite for that, and that they will prosper by doing so. As they do so, they should be joined by many others sooner rather than later.

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Gavin Pearson

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