What can brand marketers do to build trust in the brands they manage?
The answer is to do nothing. Not that doing nothing is the way to build trust. Rather, doing nothing means to quit worrying about trust. Certainly, trust is important. But trust is a multi-dimensional dynamic that is largely beyond the control of any individual brand or category and generally unrelated to brand choices in the marketplace.
Admittedly, this answer seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t trust a fundamental underpinning of business? Yes, in some ways; but, no, in most. In whatever way trust is considered, though, when it comes to managing brands, it is best to approach trust with an eye toward the bigger picture.
It is well-known among academic political scientists that trust in institutions of every sort fell off the cliff in the mid-1960s. It didn’t happen all at once, but this period of time was the beginning of a precipitous long-term slide. It marked the turning point for trust in institutions of every sort, from government to politics to religion to media to business, even marriage. And not just in the U.S., but in every industrial democracy the world over.
This broad-based alienation from big institutions (on both the left and the right) was rooted in an overarching shift in cultural values. University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart has characterized this shift as the rise of post-materialism and its associated set of humanistic values. This has nothing to do with any particular brand or business category. It is the shift in values that occurs once a society crosses a certain threshold of material well-being. As post-materialistic values take hold, institutions lose authority while personal freedom and citizen empowerment become more important. Trust no longer resides in super-ordinate institutions but vests instead in individuals and the personal connections.
This societal loss of institutional trust is the background against which trust of any sort must be considered, including trust in brands. Trust is not a precondition for liking a brand. Trust is a consideration of moral legitimacy, even ethics; liking a brand is a consumption consideration. True, distrust can sometimes steer consumers away from a brand, but that sort of connection between ethics and consumption is rare and shaky to begin with.
More typically, the sort of trust that consumers demand from a brand is reliability. Consumers want to have confidence that a brand will deliver what it promises. Bigger issues about institutional authority or ethical performance are far removed and far from top of mind when making a brand choice at point-of-sale.
Yet, distrust can be erosive in other ways. It can encourage negative stories in the media that directly touch the consumer focus on brand performance. It can spur regulators to scrutinize the business more closely. It can serve to legitimize and amplify unfavorable word-of-mouth. It can create internal discord, both within rank-and-file and senior management. So distrust needs attention, although typically not for reasons of consumer decision-making.
How then should trust be managed in the recovery consumer marketplace ahead?
As a brand marketer there are four things to remember:
- Be clear about why trust is important. This means understanding what managing trust is intended to do. What important audiences are being addressed? What specific behaviors are the focus of concern?
- Build trust through small promises. For consumers, trust is about reliability. The more reliable a brand, the more confidence, and thus trust, consumers have. Repeatedly doing what you say proves reliability and trustworthiness. Small promises, reliably fulfilled, builds trust.
- Focus most of your attention on the drivers of choice. Managing trust is not the end-game. The objective is to sell product. Only if trust is a driver of choice should it be the center of attention. Otherwise, put priority on the dimensions that actually motivate consumers to buy.
- Give it time. Trust ebbs and flows. It will come back. Short memories are no excuse for egregious behavior, but it is not productive to waste time and energy on something that is rooted in bigger societal issues.
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