We live in distrustful times, which makes it very challenging for companies and brands to earn, build or rebuild customer trust. Challenging, but not impossible. By embracing the qualities of the people that customers trust the most—and demonstrating those characteristics through deliberate, authentic action—brands can make meaningful progress towards more loyal customers.
A world with a serious lack of trust
We live in a cynical world. Our recent research into subconscious trust shows that companies – especially successful ones – are inherently seen as untrustworthy, and that no single industry group is rated “most trusted” by more than 40% of surveyed participants. And outside research supports our findings: The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer notes that there has been a progressive destruction of trust in societal institutions over the past two decades as heads of state, CEOs and other traditional power figures have been discredited. According to the Pew Research Center, it has been more than 40 years since the public’s trust in the US government was higher than 50 percent, other than a brief period after the 9/11 attacks.
This erosion of trust is immediately apparent – and perhaps related to – changes in the media landscape and the erosion of authoritative voices presenting current events. For decades, families would tune in to one of the three major networks at dinner time to hear the news of the day from trusted figures such as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow. These news anchors delivered the authoritative word on the day’s events, their tone and bearing conveying seriousness, impartiality and credibility. In the late 1980s, multinational corporations began acquiring larger ownership stakes in the major news outlets, which brought a more explicit emphasis on advertising revenue and the bottom-line performance of news programming. Today these networks and other traditional news organizations compete with countless media outlets that have proliferated across cable and the Internet—intensifying competition for audiences and advertisers and sharpening the focus on financial performance. The result? A highly polarized media landscape and low public trust in a once-hallowed institution. A 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found that on a multiple-item media trust scale with scores from 0 to 100, the average American scores a 37. The same survey found that more Americans view the news media negatively (43 percent) than positively (33 percent).
In our own research, we found not one industry group was “most trusted” by 40% or more of respondents
Brand trust has also suffered in recent years. In recent research, we asked members of our Maru/Blue Springboard America Community to rank the trustworthiness of several industries (and by extension, the companies in those industries): not one industry group was “most trusted” by 50 percent or more of respondents. The computer/technology sector topped the most trusted list, with 34.4 percent of respondents; the least trusted were social media (51.8 percent), insurance (50.7 percent), and financial institutions (41.4 percent).
Our subsequent semiotic image analysis only reinforced this sense of mistrust of companies and brands. We found that at a subconscious level, people regard brands—especially successful brands—as inherently untrustworthy. Emotionally, people fear the perceived size and power of these brands, and they expect these brands to control the buying relationship and put their own interests ahead of the customers’. What’s more, this distrust appears to be automatic; the customer doesn’t need to have experienced or been informed of a brand’s previous behaviour.
Subconsciously, people regard brands—especially successful brands—as inherently untrustworthy
This is bad news for companies and brands, as Facebook, Volkswagen, Boeing and United Airlines can attest—a loss of trust can result in significant material consequences: falling share prices and market capitalizations, dropping revenues, and fines or other penalties. Trust matters.
To earn trust, act like trustworthy people
What qualities and characteristics can help companies and brands earn consumers’ trust at a time when consumers consider brands to be inherently untrustworthy? It’s worth looking at what makes people trustworthy. Over the course of our research, the people we interviewed had a lot to say about the trusted people in their day-to-day lives: grandparents, parents, spouses, even childhood friends. Out of these conversations, common characteristics emerged.
What we learned is that trustworthy people are reliable, consistent, and honest. They genuinely care and nurture those around them. They’re close and relatable; they allow us to see the best of ourselves in them. They’re seen as good people, driven by positive values and a commitment to help others or at least do no harm to others.
To regain consumers’ trust, brands need to be more like trustworthy people: reliable, consistent, honest, relatable, driven by positive values and a commitment to help others—and content
What we found most interesting, however, is that trustworthy people are also content and grateful for who they are and what they have. They’re empathetic with others and strive to build positive relationships. Untrustworthy people, by contrast, seem ill at ease with themselves and others. They’re known to have misled others, or seem likely to do so, and they’re often driven by aggressive self-interest and a disregard for the needs or wants of others. Unfortunately, in consumers’ minds, all too many companies and brands behave much like untrustworthy individuals.
But not all companies. And when we asked research participants about the brands they did trust, they identified traits very much like those of the trustworthy grandparents, parents, best friends and others that participants had identified. Trusted brands are reliable and consistent; customers know what to expect and don’t experience negative surprises. They demonstrate a caring, even nurturing quality by putting customers first. They appear to understand and have empathy for their customers, who feel that they and the company understand each other. They act in ways that demonstrably align with their values—and they also focus on goals beyond the bottom line.
Five key steps to build and improve consumer trust
Of course, knowing what qualities can make a brand more trustworthy is one thing. Understanding how to build and communicate those qualities—and overcome consumers’ deep-seated distrust—is something else entirely. Based on our research, we’ve identified five key areas where companies and brands can take action to help earn, build or rebuild consumers’ trust.
- Share your origin. Origin stories aren’t just for superheroes. A good origin story can help people understand and develop and affection for new, disruptive upstarts like bra manufacturer Thirdlove or beauty product maker Glossier. And a classic origin story steeped in a proud heritage of business excellence can provide older, more established brands such as Boeing and Volkswagen with a powerful asset to leverage in times of growth—or crisis.
- Serve others. Consumers already tend to see companies and brands as profit-obsessed, self-interested organizations putting themselves ahead of their customers. Prove them wrong by actively striving to dispel that perception. Customer service is key: proactive communications, speedy dispute resolution, and adopting a pro-customer attitude, as Apple and Amazon demonstrate, can go a long way to showing a company has far more than its selfish interests at heart.
- Be authentic and consistent. Trusted brands are like trusted people: their actions are consistent with their values, beliefs and priorities. In every interaction with others—no matter the place, time or channel—companies like Nike steadfastly stick to their principles and refuse to change or compromise to appease shareholders or manipulate customers.
- Be relatable and likeable. Consumers want to like brands. They want to see themselves in the brands they buy, and they want those brands to reflect well on them, too. They want to trust in their favorite brands and have their loyalty rewarded. WaterWipes and other relatable brands are personable; they have a “human” quality, in that they demonstrate empathy and care for their customers that never crosses the line into emotional manipulation.
- Harness the power of word of mouth. Trusted brands don’t do all the talking themselves. They harness the power of their own customers to share their story and establish a connection between the brand and the public. Authentic, trusted—and real—customers can be powerful brand ambassadors, and their product reviews, testimonials and recommendations can generate tremendous goodwill towards a brand.
It’s possible to build trust in a distrustful world
It’s said that trust is hard to gain, and easy to lose. It may be that companies and brands have been relying on the wrong role models for their efforts. To become more trustworthy, it’s important that brands understand the realities of today’s distrustful world—and what it takes for a person or organization to truly earn a consumer’s trust in such a world. Our conclusion? Gaining or regaining trust is challenging, but it is most certainly possible.