How to regain trust

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The entire population is whirling within a vortex of mistrust, distrust, misinformation, disinformation and disclosures. Corporate managements, meanwhile, are scrambling to mend miles of fences between themselves and their boards of directors, banks, investment bankers, stock brokers, auditors, the media, U.S. Senate and House committees, the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Yet we, as futurists who help the Fortune 500 position themselves and their products, have become aware of a huge blind spot in corporate vision today: the consumer.

The consumer is the one faction that corporations have blithely skipped over. In an amnesiac haze, and caught in a frantic self-protective frenzy, corporations have forgotten that consumers are everywhere. They come in the form of employees, who witness the internal disrepair and havoc. They come as stockholders, past, present and future. They come as shoppers who visit the shelf and buy-or don't buy. They come as the ones who ultimately make or break the corporate bottom and top line.

what consumers see

But when a consumer sees not one but two, three or more CEOs marched out of their corporate aeries in handcuffs, that consumer is seeing all chairmen in that humiliating stance-with stature reduced in direct proportion to the stock price.

When a consumer hears tales of chats inside private jets that result in private tips and insider trading, they believe that all stock prices are manipulated just that way. When their precious retirement/college/dream-piles are dissipated because they didn't get the same inside-track information that the insiders got, they realize that they're out. Down and out.

We've heard it described as being like "someone breaking and entering our homes, prying loose the floorboards and extracting our precious nest eggs and spiriting them away. I wouldn't invite that person in again."

So we're left with a hurt and angry consumer, surrounded and supported by his or her equally disillusioned family and friends, in line up and down Main Street, and looking for revenge. And consumer revenge comes in the form of sold-off stocks and unsold product.

Based on thousands of interviews, we are seeing an undeniable connection between the corporations we read about daily and the brands we use every day. So the "Chinese wall" that conglomerates felt safe crouching behind, the curtain that they believed loomed large between their brands and their mother corporation, has become transparent and will soon disappear.

In the midst of this mess, some concerned clients have asked us to design a set of rules or standards that would communicate their honesty and restore the confidence of their very shaky consumers. We're not talking about spin. We're talking about proving that a corporation has what it takes to qualify as what we have coined the "Open Company"-a company unafraid of scrutiny.

`open company' defined

The rules of the new, clean road don't require an MBA degree, or even a bachelor's degree, to be understood. And when implemented-by companies with a genuine desire to respect their customers, themselves and their good name-they are recognizable by all.

The model that we are developing includes insured financial statements prepared by independent auditors. Stockholders would be the beneficiaries of the insurance policies. Second opinions of those financial statements, much like those we expect in important matters of health, would be required. All compensation, stock options, stock holdings and bonuses would be public. All communication that may be of interest to actual or prospective stockholders and consumers, from annual reports to research results, would be written in basic (not business school or accountant-ese) English.

The Open Company would be characterized by its transparency about global issues, such as the condition of its factories, its use of crop chemicals, its stance on engineered foods.

The Open Company would be recognized for its accessibility: chairman, president, manager to consumer, one on one, one by one, one with one-just the way we purchase products that produce billions of dollars for their corporate entity.

The Open Company (which abides by these rules and this model) will be identified by a federally granted (think SEC) symbol that would appear on its every box, bag, can and communique.

The Open Company will be idealized by its future. It will live and be well for centuries to come.

Faith Popcorn is founder of marketing consultancy Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, New York (faith@faithpopcorn.com). Ayse Kenmore is strategic liaison at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve.

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