Certifications And Service Guarantees: Worth The Money Or More Marketing Spin? (Empty Labels Suck)

Here are a few questions to consider as you read this article:

  • Do you treat your brand as a moniker or image, or does it truly embody your values and focus in work-life?
  • What makes you trust a brand: the promises, the image, or the experience?
  • Does quality stop at design and engineering?
  • What are we REALLY buying and selling, and what’s the value in it?

On The Mundane Chatter Podcast we discussed a slew of consumer-focused and other geeky topics on Episode 9. I was particularly intrigued by the whole “Fair Trade” market and the implications for small businesses, competition, and the consumer. Is it worth buying something labelled or certified a certain way? Allow me to rant a bit.

When I think about labels like THX, Organic, and Fair Trade, I think “marketing spin” (HINT: Spin Sucks) and “propaganda”. Value and proper execution/delivery, not so much. You’re paying more under a marketing pretense, a promise that is likely never delivered. I look at guarantees and certifications like any other line on advertised specifications and features: it’s more perceived value than anything else.. Mere labels (false attempts at dress to impress).The core issue here is that guarantees and certifications are often empty, meaningless labels meant to drive price and market penetration, not holistic quality and true value. Corporate America loves hype but, from a global perspective, we’re not alone in the peddling of crap. We all make the mistake of buying premium items, only to find out it’s all marketing hype.

If you owned a few cars in your life, this example may give you a better idea of how dire the situation has become. Let’s say you need transmission work done. By far, that is one of the most expensive repairs you can do on any car, foreign or domestic. You can go for the cheapest and hope your car doesn’t break down soon after repairs. Your better bet would be researching top repair shops and finding the best guarantee. Ideally, you want to ask around and talk to the customers because, as we all know, salespeople can and will say anything to make the sale. I’ve found out the hard way that two-year 24K-mile warranties are mostly only good on paper. These warranties come with many stipulations and conditions, effectively rendering them useless.. Yet we still buy into them.

Going back to Fair Trade, is it really fair? Are we paying for an empty label/promise?

I think they are not fair and, quite often, we’re paying for lies.

Like most certifications, quality standards and requirements are loose. If you have the money to buy the label, you’re good to go. What this means is that smaller businesses (in this case, poorer or smaller farmers) find it even harder to compete and thrive. The Fair Trade marketplace is no exception. Certifying organizations claim to advocate and mediate for consumer parties but, really, they err in favor of their paying member brands.

Brand identity is losing ground to meaningful engagement and authentic experiences, where people and caring are at the center.

Really, I have yet to find a certification (or any label, at that) that really compels me. It’s all about money buying credentials. Certifications are not objective enough and certainly not fair for the “little guys”. At most, they help get a “foot in the door” but what usually follows does not bring home value.

Fair Trade should be about creating more competition and giving the consumer more bang for their buck. I think farmer markets and co-op programs are more valuable to struggling farms, but even those systems are broken. A few articles on Fair Trade and the coffee bean industry really honed in on some real winning ideas (Google them as there are many out there). The main thing they bring up is that certifications should come with built-in member benefits and support programs.

Imagine if Fair Trade gave smaller businesses an edge with lower buy-in prices or no buy-in price at all. A progressive renewal rate could be set according to sales volume and profit margins thereof to help level the competitive landscape. That’s fair. Even better, the certifying organizations could provide training workshops and materials. That provides a very real value as opposed to just some fancy paper credentials.

Hold certified parties accountable so your brand does not suffer. This applies to coaching businesses: our customers become products, extensions of our brands, themselves.. Protect them.

Fair Trade certification is good in theory but poorly-executed. Quite often, the cheaper, uncertified coffee beans and other products are better, but harder to get your hands on. It’s a real shame. We’re promised that we’ll be stimulating the economy and helping small business but, instead, we’re only further fortifying industry leaders. I find the same level of “brokedness” with organic foods.. And I’m not the only one who feels this way!

Rather than waiting for the overall system to be fixed, I say buy direct and support local shops whenever you can. It’s not as convenient and it can be more pricey, but it’s worth it. More often than not, you’ll be buying a better product, not just paying more for empty promises. Fair Trade is fair to the big corporations and industry leaders. That’s all there is to it. To put it simply, it’s a bunch of crap.

In short, Fair Trade and other certifications focus on money but they miss the root cause of why businesses fail: lack of education and, by extension, deliberate direction. There are awesome, remarkable products and services out there that you may not ever hear of or try out. Quite simply, some people just lack the business savvy to get their stuff more visible. Help out the little guys and give them the tools to jump start their businesses; ultimately, that could benefit more people, not just small interest groups.

I’d like to add that the proponents of Fair Trade labels use supposed hard numbers to create more perceived value. All the numbers have shown me is that more sales are driven for participants. Of course, they do not mention how many of the benefactors are lesser-known small businesses. How convenient. Yes, let’s be fair by expanding already-established businesses and bury the little guys deeper beneath the poverty line. Yup.. That’s fair! *dripping sarcasm*

Let’s Discuss:

  1. Do you believe in labels (think Klout, BBB, CompTIA, etc.) or do you take them with a grain of salt?
  2. Do labels provide real value or is it just more status quo?
  3. Are there other credentials you feel build up more value and/or consumer confidence?
  4. When you buy or buy into something, what aspects do you weigh out the most?
  5. How do you apply these ideas in your own business?

Certainly, there’s much more to discuss here so I hope that, once again, I got the creative juices going. Here’s to honest, authentic businesses!

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10 thoughts on “Certifications And Service Guarantees: Worth The Money Or More Marketing Spin? (Empty Labels Suck)

  1. I have to disagree with you on Fair Trade. I’m in total support of it. Fair Trade doesn’t help the industry leaders. They help the poor farmers in 3rd world countries. When you buy Fair Trade Coffee, you’re not buying Folgers Crystals or Sanka or any of the big coffee brands, you’re buying the smaller independent brands that are giving back the farmers a fair wage.

  2. Fair enough.. and I expected as much!

    I’m not saying this doesn’t help some third-world suppliers but, if it costs money to buy into the program, then, really, it’s mainly helping out those that are better off to begin with. That is my point here. Industry leaders in those third-world markets can easily abuse the system, if they’re not already.

    That is why I suggest tweaking the system to give priority to those that truly need the marketing muscle to get “back in the black”. Without such a system in place, the Fair Trade label still seems like Organic labels to me: you’re paying more for something you’re not really getting. Sure, in the end people may feel better about themselves and not know any better but who is this fair to, really?

    It kind of reminds me of socialism: it’s an arguable awesome system that, unfortunately, has been bastardized, leaving a bad taste in our mouths (pun intended). The spirit of Fair Trade is to make things more competitive and help out the little guys but I don’t think that is the purpose it is currently fulfilling at all.

    Again, I stand by my belief here. I know there are “facts” that indicate otherwise but none are compelling enough to me. Perhaps if I understand the sign-up/buy-in process, I could appreciate it more. What are they REALLY doing to help out the small, poorer producers out there? If I see that they’re building up these little businesses into household brands, THEN I can get excited.

    Overall, my article here may have been triggered by Fair Trade (and supporting third-world coffee producers) but it’s really about how broken the certification system is as a whole. If anyone can buy the paper credential, how valuable is it? Just some food for thought… 8)

    • Oh yeah. I am well-aware of that. If the Fair Trade organization is holding such companies accountable for their production methods and quality standards, that’s GREAT! I still stand by the fact that, if everyone has to buy into the program to get noticed, it’ll still be harder on the little guys.. Still, there’s potential here and I am not writing off Fair Trade all together.

      Interestingly enough, I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about chocolate production, which makes it a true guilty pleasure for me (I DO have a sweet tooth, after all). Apparently, FDA regulations allow for a certain degree of rat hairs and other contaminants in the so-called “refined” product. Kinda gross, if you stop and think about it.. Ignorance is bliss to that end! =oX

  3. In some cases, Fair Trade seems to be a boon – as in, without it, a lot of people would be in a lot of trouble. In others, it doesn’t seem like it’s doing enough…or that it really is just a piece of paper.

    On that note, whose job is it to stand of for the little guy?
    My thought: The little guy.
    I may be a bit of a b–witch, but I don’t see the point in whining about something you aren’t willing to fight to change. If you’re trying, whine away while you refuse to let the bastards take you down. (or at least take as many of them with you as you can when you do.)

    Perceived value pisses me off. I totally get that one, and the second I started reading this post, I was going off in my head on a little rant about dog training.

    We hand out certifications to “trainers” like candy. I’d trust someone who got one out of a cracker jack box more than I would someone who studied to get one. They’re so easy to get… It kills me.

    But the quality of the “product” does not withhold. It ALWAYS takes research – independent research – to find out what’s really worth your time and money, right?

    And if you can buy it at your local supermarket, it’s not that good for you anyway. ;]

    • WOW – I am impressed! You basically made all the points I wanted to make here in less words than I managed to. I need to work on this being concise stuff!

      I’d like to piggy-back on your thoughts…

      Fair Trade helps but, you’re right: the little guys need to step up. Of course, helping the little guys help themselves is pretty much what I’m getting at. It’d better to teach someone how to make $100 than it is to just hand them the money.. Or something like that.

      Perceived value is what it all comes down to. I see you share my sentiment on paper-certified people. I agree wholeheartedly with what you said on that.

      Really, I rather work with someone that is passionate and loves what they do. That will drive them to keep learning and actually care, whereas paper-certified folks usually already have money and only want more of it. It’s a broken system.

      I feel some folks put too much stock in credentials, labels, and qualifiers. Human nature and competence alike are not so easily assessed, unless you lack dynamics.. But you only find such flat characters on, say, a CBS show or “reality” TV. =oP

      Last but not least, I got giddy when you mentioned independent research. I thought, “This.. SO this!” It takes a good bit of humility to realize that you don’t know it all. Life-long learning is the good stuff!

      Oh, and I agree about supermarkets.. I really should do the co-op farm and/or local/farmer’s markets thing but convenience can be such a hook sometimes.. Shame on me, I know!

      • Ha! Love it, and agree with everything…except for one thing.

        I DO NOT like to work with people who are driven by passion in my line of work. It makes it too emotional… and too hard. Emotional reserve is a must because we get a lot of bad cases….too many of which we are begged to hand out a life or death sentences.

        Being attached to what you do… Can lead to lawsuits in our line of work. It can lead to leaving a dangerous animal in a house with children, and all because someone feels SORRY for the dog or because they don’t BELIEVE in euthanasia.

        Beliefs and ideals don’t matter where safety is concerned. Safety matters where safety is concerned.

        I’m ranting, sorry.

        My point (which I totally failed to make) is that passion is nice, but I want to work with people who are qualified because they are qualified. Screw degrees, certifications, and the like. A piece of paper proves nothing and what you do proves everything.

      • I concur.

        I say “passion” along the lines of doing what you love, not blind fanaticism or being emotionally-driven. Passion, like anything else, can be adulterated.. Everything is good in moderation. =o]

        Great take on ideals and beliefs. I think it’s important to be principle-driven but, in some lines of work, you really have to respect standards and best practices. That stuff comes with experience and, like you said, you can’t be trained or taught that sort of thing!

        Paper certifications are good for filling up white space, really. =oP

  4. Pingback: Why Dating And Traditional Marketing Are Full Of Suck « Yogizilla's Blankity Blank-Blank (An NoF Portal)

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