Trusted brands today

Building real brand trust in a world full of fake

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Once, it was easy to build brand trust. You used mass media to establish profile and credibility, you became a “household name” and that was pretty much it. No longer of course. The splintering of channels, new levels of transparency and increasing expectations from customers have made just ‘being’ a trusted brand almost impossible. Trust is now far from a given.

I suppose we shouldn’t really be surprised. Trust may be one of the top 20 powerful brand motivations but brand trust itself has been declining for some time. This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer points to some interesting findings around trust dynamics:

  • We are seeing a significant polarisation of trust globally. There has been a significant decline in trust in government, particularly in the US and yet at the same time China’s trust is soaring as Chinese brands like Tencent and Alibaba make their presence felt worldwide.
  • While belief in the media continues to decline, the credibility of journals has risen substantially, reflecting a resurgence in voices of expertise.
  • Trust building is intrinsically linked to leadership. Senior decision makers are now expected to act as trust agents – with the majority of those questioned saying that establishing and maintaining trust is the key role for CEOs today.

Here’s another interesting finding. Even within a sector like the media, trust varies – sometimes markedly. According to a report prepared by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, the lowest ranked Finnish news brands for example score higher than almost any of their counterparts in Spain, while in the UK, Japan, Germany, Denmark and Italy, the most trusted news media brand is the public service broadcaster.

But while the decline in trust globally and in some sectors in particular throws a lot of things into question, it also, as Chris Wren has pointed out, represents “an unprecedented opportunity for (the right) brands to step up; to inspire by their actions, and demonstrate responsible stewardship for the multiple moments of happiness, satisfaction, connection, delight, cleanliness and all of the other feelings we associate with a positive brand experience.”

So what factors should brands be using today to establish credibility? How do you inspire feelings of “happiness, satisfaction, connection, delight” among consumers who’ve been regularly promised too much and delivered too little?

The foundations of brand trust

Before we get into that, let’s pause to consider how brand trust is built. Mark Babbit suggests there are four critical components:

  • History – your brand’s track record in terms of stability and consistency
  • Capability – the capacity and resources your brand has to deliver on what it has undertaken to deliver in the market
  • Alignment – the extent to which your brand aligns philosophically with the priorities and philosophies of customers
  • Transparency – the degree to which your brand is prepared to be honest if and when things go wrong.

Susan Gunelius ties brand trust to what she sees as the three primary steps of brand building – consistency, persistence and restraint. Trust becomes loyalty, she says, when we believe that a brand will meet our expectations every time we purchase and use it – and loyalty becomes advocacy when we believe that others will also receive that same level of interaction and experience. We buy and trust the things we value as customers, even though meaningful customer value is hard to create and even harder to maintain.

Trust is also chemical

In an article on the neuroscience of brand trust, Lawrence Crosby and Paul Zak report that while marketers have focused on a social science approach to understanding the role of trust, neuroscientists studying trust from the standpoint of brain function have found that the neurochemical oxytocin (OT) is synthesized in the human brain when one is trusted or simply treated well. That molecule in turn motivates reciprocation.

The same chemical is released in our social media interactions for example, reports Interbrand, because our brains interpret social encounters such as tweets as personal interactions. But this conversion isn’t automatic. The secret according to Dave Hawley who is quoted in the article is “to make that social media connection into a human connection, and not an automated or derisive connection”.

Even here, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported a significant decline in trust in social media platforms this year. So while Twitter use may activate chemicals of trust in consumers, the platforms themselves are having the opposite effect. “About 40 percent of digitally connected people worldwide said they had deleted at least one of their social media accounts in the past year because they didn’t trust that the platform would properly handle personal information. For younger people between the ages of 18 to 34, the chance that they had deleted a social media account was 44 percent.”

Our assignment of trust as consumers is becoming more selective but it is also becoming more nuanced, meaning brands are going to have to think very carefully about where they are seen and even how they are perceived in those contexts if they want to retain consumers’ loyalty. There’s a curious exchange irony emerging here it seems to me: people want to engage and interact, but they are increasingly wary of the very platforms that have fostered that engagement and interaction.

8 behaviours to build and deepen brand trust

Trust going forward is clearly referenced by the depth of reliability that a brand can draw on from its past—particularly for the first three of the measures mentioned above (history, capability and alignment), and in that sense brand trust is like reputation in that it’s critical to have credits in the brand bank. But previous behaviours, whilst very important, are not the full answer in my view. How your brand behaves now and into the future, and how open a brand is about how it is behaving, are also critical components in building faith:

  1. Make sure your product does what it says on the tin. Deliver what you said you would deliver. Obvious, right? – but there are still plenty of companies that judge their delivery by their capabilities and forget to compare what they deliver with what others are delivering around them. That matters because the best delivery, the greatest reliability, the most timely product/service—that’s the real benchmark against which you are being graded. Doing your best and doing the best are different ideas—and actually, different standards. Say what you do. Do what you say. Excel in a way that your brand can own. Be clear about why that matters. And do it all consistently.
  2. Be more than available. It’s easy to confuse accessibility with availability. Most brands make themselves available—on their terms or via platforms on terms that consumers are increasingly wary of. Powerful brands are accessible. People feel they can talk to them, and that the answers they will get back are authentic and based on a genuine wish to help. That’s not just about active social media and contact centres (although that helps). It’s about cultivating a generous spirit of listening and conversation across your culture. As communications become more short-form, the ability to talk directly and meaningfully has never been more important. Brands that take the time to interact build ‘eye contact’ and so feel much more personal and therefore more trustworthy.
  3. Have rules that work for your customers. It’s easy to build a business that has rules that work for you. It’s much more difficult to build a brand where the rules work to let customers know exactly where they stand. Brands looking to build trust do two things in this regards: they keep things starkly simple; and they articulate what they won’t do as clearly as they state what they will do. True purpose-driven brands are a great example of this. They operate to clear principles and they are consistent in how they articulate those beliefs and what they engage in based on those beliefs. In a world still packed with terms and conditions, the binary nature of rules—what a brand accepts and what it doesn’t—can be a powerful trust-building factor.
  4. Take responsibility. Increasingly, brands are being asked to account for how they deliver not just what they deliver. The fast movers in this space have adopted transparency as proof of value not just proof of source. By highlighting what they do to keep things right, to eliminate exploitation and waste, they are looking to shift the affinity that customers have for their products from functional to emotional. That’s the future of loyalty right there potentially: brands that feel right because they do right. Reinforcing and activating the changes that consumers want to see in the world is a powerful way to build a bond.
  5. Put things right. Crisis moments are an opportunity to show that your brand will do what is expected not just what is required. Trustworthy brands accept shortcomings readily, acknowledge quickly, move decisively and patiently rebuild the ground they have lost. Less credible brands shift, deny, downplay, hide behind excuses, create a scapegoat or play politics. In other words, as per Babbit’s analysis, they act in opaque ways. Their moves may get them out of the headlines but they fail to act as proving moments for the brand in the longer term. Indeed, they often highlight specific circumstances where the brand cannot be trusted to behave right or where it may resort to acting in a fake way or throwing up smokescreens.
  6. Build community. Increasingly, we build trust together. I love this wonderful observation from the good people at Protein: “a brand is not what you tell people it is, it’s what people tell each other it is.” Today, consumers look to their peers and to the influencers they follow to guide them around who they should support. (We could have a whole debate about how trustworthy influencers are, but not here.) It follows that trustworthy brands should be building advocacy (and reputation) by encouraging those types of assemblies: getting out of the way and prompting people to come together and find points of interest and reasons to share and interact because of the brand.
  7. Light the way forward. Trusted brands advocate for a future that people want to see happen, and, through innovation, acquisition and growth, they are seen to be actively pursuing that vision. Businesses that behave in this way are seen to be putting their brand where their future is. Their actions match their words—and the combination acts as powerful proof of intention.
  8. Strive for emotional difference not just competitive difference. People are naturally drawn to things that make them feel better about themselves. We trust how we feel. In fact, we rely on those feelings, those instincts, to tell us what to keep in our lives and what to discard. It seems strange to me that, with all the talk about experiences today, too many brands continue to assess their value through their outputs rather than the outcomes. And the greatest outcome that every brand should be looking for, in my opinion, is an emotional response from customers that is distinct, trusted and more powerful than what everyone else looks to deliver.

Too many brands have no objective way of assessing how trusted or trustworthy they are.

Any brand manager will tell you that they want their brand to be trusted but too many brands it seems to me rely on measures like their Net Promoter Scores to assess their levels of brand trust or they guess on the basis of convenient impressions such as their top line earnings, the levels of media coverage they receive or recurrent sales that seem to show people choosing to come back to them. All of these seem somewhat arbitrary ways of tracking something so important to the welfare and value of your brand. I prefer Nick Black’s ideas for assessing the degree to which your brand is perceived as one worth trusting:

  • Establish metrics that accurately indicate the extent to which your brand is driving trust in the marketplace, and more particularly where it is not (as opposed to measures that just feel like they might be passable indicators);
  • Define what your brand needs to be most trusted for – I think this is a critical point; and
  • Use every process and program you have to bolster those critical areas of trust where you have them and to fix those areas where customer trust seems to be lacking.

If you’re not sure how to do that, here are six sure signs of a truly trusted brand and 9 questions you can ask to see if you are indeed trusted as a brand.

Updated: This article was originally published in August 2017 and has been updated in July 2018 to include more detail and discussion points. A shorter version of this article was posted elsewhere under the title 8 Pillars To Building Trusted Brands


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