Which? way now for consumers’ advocate?

whichWhen I read that Which? – the consumer advocacy group – was seeking outside finance to launch a raft of own-label products, I had the same uneasy reaction as some of our readers. But who, said Hannah Dennis, is watching the Watchmen? Which pretty much summed up everyone else’s scepticism about the initiative as well.

Which? – formerly the Consumers’ Association – is an honourable and powerful brand with over 50 years’ experience in championing consumers’ rights behind it. The organisation’s guides provide trusted and objective benchmark criteria for a whole range of commercial goods and services. It has also been acclaimed for national campaigns waged against greedy car-dealers and dentists.

But there is a seam of weakness in Which?’s constitution. It is at once a charity and a commercial organisation. Although it has no shareholders, it does depend upon over 1 million subscribers to keep it in funds. From time to time the drive to shore up and expand this base has exposed it to criticism. For example, headline-seeking sensationalism and a Reader’s Digest attitude to self-promotion (now modified).

It seems to me that the potential fissure between Which?’s brand values and its commercial priorities will come under still more pressure if the organisation moves in a concerted way into the production of own-brand goods and services.

Now, I hear what chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith is saying: the initiative is designed to bring competition to sectors where it is currently lacking. Admirable.

But what does this entail? For one thing, getting into bed with financiers and entrepreneurs. While these partners’ motives may be informed by a degree of altruism, they won’t be entirely selfless either. So Which?, depending on the depth of its immersion in these co-ventures, will progressively find itself answering to two masters: the consumer, who respects the objectivity of its judgements; and the commercial partner with whom it has entered into a contract.

For much of the time such tension may not be apparent to the uninformed observer. But what happens to the organisation’s cherished brand values should an explicit conflict arise? Say, for instance, that one of Which?’s carefully developed own-brand products lets it down and turns out to be less than exemplary?

The trouble, from a commercial point of view, with brand values is that brand owners don’t really own them. They are in a public trust. Brands must be seen to be above suspicion.

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