Brand trust – and its role in brand differentiation

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Brand trust resides in different places in different markets. The location and nature of that trust should directly influence how you compete.

Category – in highly regarded categories, such as the NGO sector, most if not all brands are trusted and seen as reputable. It’s hard to gain distinction in such circumstances because all/the vast majority of participants are viewed as ethical, and therefore there is little or no reputational distinction. Equally, if you are part of a sector with a bad reputation, it’s very hard to break away from the overwhelming stigma that membership in that category brings with it. In some markets, you are still pushing stuff uphill if you seriously believe you can be a trusted financial institution.

If you wish to put distance between yourself and others in a category where everyone/no-one is trusted, you have two opportunities: the first is to look for ways to disrupt the category (relatively easy in categories that are renowned for being slow, conservative or arrogant); the alternative is that you position and compete in a manner that is closer to the dynamics of a different (and often unrelated) category. Interesting things can happen when you apply the rules of one part of the market to another.

Product – in markets where one or more brands are seen as the leaders because of the products they offer, the products themselves are often viewed as interchangeable from a trust perspective. To counter this, some brands have looked to build strong and integrated ecosystems around their offerings that ensure they (only) work best when they are used together. Nevertheless, maintaining loyalty in such competitive environments is difficult. Players often get pulled into upgrade, feature or price wars in increasingly desperate attempts to out-pace and under-price their competitors. Such squabbles use up immense energy and resources and frequently do little to shift the dial in terms of overall reputation or loyalty. Inevitably, the other player(s) catch(es) up, and the cycle starts again.

In a product-vs-product environment, story is critical to differentiation. You need to be able to link your product to an idea that consumers consider every bit as important and as intriguing as the product itself – and that idea also needs to drive the innovation programme in terms of what, where and why you choose to introduce new thinking. In these circumstances, trust is generated through affinity: through the articulation of attitudes and priorities that make the product an endorsement of a wider and stronger belief system. Pulling consumers into that system and working with them to advance product lines is a great way to leverage and accentuate a shared passion/commitment.

Lego epitomises the way that smart brands are staying close to the spirit of what binds them to their consumers. Children trust Lego to be playful, even in a digital age. As this Fast Company article observed, “Lego doesn’t see technology as a looming wave to ride at all costs: As this generation of children loses the distinction between physical and digital play, Lego has learned that preserving the spirit of building will keep their toys in kids’ hands.”

Masterbrand – Sometimes category choice and product development are subsets of an even stronger idea – the trust that consumers have in the company behind the offering. Unilever and P&G have been able to diversify their portfolios on the strength of the endorsement the masterbrand brings to the offering. In the most successful cases – across areas such as fashion, luxury, retail, technology – the reputation of the super-manufacturer adds reassurance, familiarity and (often) premium. But faith cuts both ways. It can work for masterbrands – and against them. While much has been made of disastrous brand extensions and diversifications, focus can also hamper competitiveness as Mark Ritson observed. Brands that choose to believe that trust is static and therefore they do not need to evolve as rapidly as those around them can find themselves wrong-footed by shifting consumer trust.

The trouble I believe is that, in the case of masterbrands, strategists often ask the wrong question. The query “What do consumers trust our brand to deliver?” is the wrong one because it inevitably yields a business-as-usual response. The real question to my mind is, “What should consumers trust our brand to be?” In the case of Coke, consumers may trust the brand to continue to deliver sugar drinks, but they should be able to trust Coke to deliver increasingly healthy responses to the obesity epidemic. Writes Ritson, “In Coca-Cola’s case, a mind-bending 75% of its global sales still come from carbonated soft drinks despite the writing clearly being on the wall for this floundering category.”

Where consumers put their trust and what they trust to happen as a result of believing are critical identifications if you want to forge a distinctive and competitive position in a market. My advice? Start with what people believe in you for, and look to put distance between your brand and others through that belief: “They can trust us to be more _____ than anyone else they know.” Now – make sure you are.

Photo of “James, I think your cover’s blown”, taken by Ludovic Bertron, sourced from Flickr


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