8 Ways to Keep the Rust Off of Brand Trust

We in the marketing and public relations business talk a lot about brand trust. Do we walk it? With trust, simply put, you have a chance to succeed with prospects and customers. Without it, well, you do the math.

We in the marketing and public relations business talk a lot about brand trust. Do we walk it?

With trust, simply put, you have a chance to succeed with prospects and customers. Without it, well, you do the math. In data-driven marketing, where data is often described as the currency of customer engagement, here, too, trust is the bank.

Right now, sad to say, trust appears to be available only at a premium. There seems to be less and less of it at a time when we really need more and more of it. This is societal. It’s not just advertising and business where trust may be in short supply. Government, institutions, education, medicine, media all seem to be scrutinized, with a loss of trust in the balance. At a time when and where factual information has never been so available and transparent, fears of misinformation, opacity, and malevolence also appear to be heightened.

Believability is at risk.

I can’t fathom how to regain trust in all these institutions just now. But I can think of our world of marketing. Brand, and brand trust, matter more precisely now, because trust everywhere appears in short supply.

Recently, Edelman, a global public relations concern, published its annual “Trust Barometer” report, looking at trust issues among consumers across eight nations, among them the United States. I find the results illuminating, because it helps provide a blueprint of where brands might concentrate efforts to bolster trust.

MarketingCharts.com summarized some of the findings here:

brand trust chart
Chart Credit: MarketingCharts.com, July 2019

(Re)Gain the Trust Some Insights From the Report

Here’s my take on eight areas of the findings:

Product Must Perform

While it’s increasingly a customer-centric world, product still matters. Quality, performance, convenience consumers won’t even entertain trust if the produce/service fails the bar. In fact, it’s the biggest trust factor. Reputation may enable consumer consideration, but 67% of customers report they won’t come back if the product fails. More than eight in 10 consumers cite quality, convenience, value, and brand trust as a “deal breaker” or “deciding factor” in a purchase decision.

Trust: Why Now?

Consumers report several reasons why trusting brands is more important: 62% cite concerns about product experience (can’t afford a bad purchase, need products to keep pace with innovation, and reliance on brands for increased automation); 55% about customer experience (use of personal data, use of tracking and targeting, and use of artificial intelligence in customer service); and 69% about societal impact (fake news and misinformation, brand involvement in social issues, and affinity with personal values).

Yet There’s Considerable Room for Improvement

Just 34% of consumers trust most of the brands they buy and use. While some might see this as in indictment, I choose to see it as a huge opportunity. In the United States, overall, 54% trust businesses to do the right thing trust in government, by the way, is 40% .

The Trust Dividend Is Real

When trust is earned, the payback is pronounced. The difference between not fully trusting brands and trusting brands for a long time is a 28-point lift in percentage when considering what brand to buy first; 33-point lift in staying loyal; 27-point lift in being an advocate; and a 21-point lift in defending a brand.

We Must Walk the Talk

Remember greenwashing environmental benefits? “Trustwashing” is also a concern regarding brands and authenticity. Worldwide, 56% of consumers feel too many brands use societal issues as a marketing tactic to sell more product. Trust in business vs. trust in government has fallen off year-over-year between 4% and 6% in brands’ ability to effect positive change on societal impacts. If you’re buying into social good, it had better be the real deal. That means an enterprise commitment that’s followed through rather than a marketing promotion.

Most Consumers Have Taken Steps to Avoid Ads

I think it’s a mistake to say all ads are held in low esteem they’re not. Other surveys have shown that eight in 10 consumers still rely on advertising to discover new products and services. But three in four consumers have taken steps in their lives – ad blocking, paid subscriptions, and changed media habits to curtail the amount of advertising they see. More than three-fourths of consumers says they pay attention to ads from brands they trust!

Enable Reviews and Influencer Involvement

Most consumers say they trust what others say about a brand, more than what the brand says in advertising about itself. Working in combination peer review then owned, paid, or social content (ads) can work together to lift trust.

Run Hard

Interestingly, the more saturated the message (meaning, engagement across media channels), the greater chance for trust. One might think this doesn’t square with the previous ad avoidance message, but it goes to show repetition and reinforcement work. But only when the message is on-point, resonates with the user, and conveys authenticity.

Conclusion

Those of us who worry and work a lot about “trust” we have some mighty work to do. But even in an age of consumer skepticism or simply skepticism the hard, honest work of trust-building often becomes its own greatest reward, regardless of business payback. Despite all the doubts and pushback, consumers do want to believe this necessary work is getting done, and brands and ourselves can be all the better for it.

3 Steps for Building Brand Authenticity When Consumer Trust Is at Rock Bottom

Creating brand authenticity is a huge challenge. This is not only because it requires major coordination from all company functions, but it also takes highly focused discipline from strategy and planning to execution. Generating authenticity has three major components.

In my last post, I discussed how brand trust in the U.S. may have hit rock bottom and that marketers need to build brand authenticity. In this article, I would like to discuss a bit about how companies can address this challenge.

Creating brand authenticity is a huge challenge. This is not only because it requires major coordination from all company functions, but it also takes highly focused discipline from strategy and planning to execution. Generating authenticity has three major components: setting expectations, consistently meeting those expectations and actively managing failure. While these components seem simple, executing them well should not be easy. If it is, you are probably doing it wrong.

Step 1: Setting Expectations

When setting expectations, companies should remember that customers do not need you to solve all of their needs, just the needs that you can solve well. We have seen countless examples of companies entering spaces where they are out of their element, in search of new growth streams.

Many times, this ends in a poor customer experience and a huge financial hit. This is where the brand team should lead the conversation around what brand promises the company should make to its target markets. In this statement, “should” is an operative word; but it is often replaced by “want to” or “could,” in practice.

This happens because the market research identifies an unmet need or underserved segment. Then, the brand aspires to fill that gap without properly addressing its corresponding operational capabilities.

One example of how a company did it right is Domino’s pizza. Its well-documented campaign — apologizing for historically bad pizzas and promising a better experience — was bold and brilliant. However, it would have been a humiliating and epic fail if it wasn’t backed by a concerted and highly organized operational transformation.

Step 2: Meeting Those Expectations

Executing well is the next critical component, which has two managerial subcomponents:

  • measuring the customer experience; and
  • listening to the customer.

Companies primarily fail here, because they don’t know what to measure or where to focus. CX can be immensely detailed and complex. That can lead to overwhelming or underwhelming measurement strategies.

Assume you are managing a burger chain. You can measure how often you run out of key menu items or measure customer satisfaction with condiment packaging. Knowing where your priorities lie is important, but is often not as obvious as the previous example would illustrate. This leads to the second subcomponent, listening. Effective listening isn’t just about regular surveys or feedback. Customers of your burger chain may state they are frustrated by hard to open, messy ketchup packets. When looking at behavioral data, how often does that actually lead them to forsake the brand? How about when the menu item they want has run out?

Most market research, by its exploratory nature, is often exhaustive and can present many pain points which need addressing. While some methods, such as conjoint analysis, may help mitigate this issue, there is no substitute for analyzing real behavioral data.

Real listening lies at the intersection of what customers say and what they do.

Step 3: Managing Failure

Finally, brand authenticity requires that you have a prevention and mitigation plan in place, because mistakes happen.

Yes, it is important to “make it right,” and that should be done as soon as possible.

However, it also means knowing the difference between a mistake and a broad violation of the brand essence, or the brand’s core values.

Examples range from knowingly compromising on customer safety to highly public displays of brand hypocrisy. To avoid trust-destroying events, companies should conduct a brand trust audit and examine every compromise it makes that is counter to the core principals of the brand.

Some compromises need to happen, but when they do, they need extra oversight. For example, look at the college admissions scandal I mentioned in my previous post. Many believe that the elite colleges involved were victims. I disagree. Their primary proposition in the market is intellectual heft; yet there are clear avenues where they knowingly compromise on this proposition, such as athletic departments. The colleges should have been much more careful about monitoring that comprise and making sure it was not abused.

Compromises need to be made; however, once brands lose control over the quantity and quality of those compromises, the brand loses control over the values it claims to project.

Conclusion

I ended my last post by writing “Authenticity means saying what you will do, doing what you say and showing that you mean it.”

In retrospect, the statement seems to be focused too much on honest intentions (also sounds like a politician trying to sound folksy and humble.) I will not take back those words, because I also believe them to be true.

In this post, however, I acknowledge that much more goes into this than genuinely honest and good intentions.

Brand Trust in the US May Hit Rock Bottom, So Be Authentic

If brand trust weren’t low enough, recent news events are likely to make things worse — much worse. We may soon find rock bottom, and it will not be pretty. For marketers, this is a huge challenge — because if there is one thing that drives purchases and loyalty, it is brand trust.

If brand trust weren’t low enough, recent news events are likely to make things worse — much worse.

First, America’s air safety has been put into serious doubt due to delayed action regarding the Boeing 737 MAX ­and its potentially fatal programming. Then, we have reports that the rich and powerful have been bribing the pathway into America’s elite schools for their presumably unqualified kids.

While these news events seem unrelated, I believe they are pivotal events that will drive brand trust to near death levels in the U.S. Granted, brand trust has been on the decline for years, but we may soon find rock bottom, and it will not be pretty. For marketers, this is a huge challenge — because if there is one thing that drives purchases and loyalty, it is brand trust.

How regulators and the airline industry dealt with 737 MAX safety issues is unfolding into a major fiasco. Most countries quickly recognized a pattern after a second 737 MAX plane crashed this month, and they quickly banned the plane from flying in their airspace. The FAA (the U.S.’s air safety regulator) provided Boeing the benefit of the doubt and continued to permit 737 MAX use for several days. Now, the FAA will be fighting the perception (or reality) that it was more interested in protecting Boeing and airlines than it was in protecting the public. On top of that, while the FAA dithered, some airlines made it difficult to cancel or change flights for passengers who, rightfully, no longer wished to fly on the 737 MAX.

If you think the brand trust deficit has been fueled by companies playing lose with customer data, playing loose with customer lives (or the perception of doing so) will be rocket fuel for said deficit.

While consumers ponder how much their lives are worth to regulators and the airline industry, for the vast majority, we found that elite university brands don’t believe we are worth enough to get into their colleges. News that the notoriously difficult and stressful college admissions process can be bypassed by those with the means to provide hefty bribes is retrospectively unsurprising and yet still shocking. Despite the pretentious branding, most everyone trusted that admission to an elite school meant that you were smart and worked hard. That brand trust has been diminished, and more stories of corruption in higher education are likely forthcoming.

What All of This Means for Other Brands

The sad reality is even if your company has not faced negative news, it is impacted — because the default level of brand trust is perhaps the lowest it’s ever been. The “2018 Edelman Trust Barometer” report (opens as a PDF) shows that the decline in U.S. of brand trust has been dramatic from 2017 to 2018 and can only be described as a “crash.” For 2018, among informed consumers, the U.S. ranks dead last in brand trust among 28 major economies (it was sixth place in 2017). Add recent news events and you can image where brand trust might be today. What makes these news events pivotal isn’t their transparent disregard for public trust, but that they involve historically trusted institutions. The FAA has been the reason we are willing to fly new airlines with no safety histories. As for colleges, we trust them with our still-developing young adults and pay ridiculously large sums to them to educate them. If we can no longer trust these institutions, then trust is in crisis.

The Brand Trust Solution

To address the growing trust deficit, it is unlikely more advertising or better content will be sufficient. Companies must learn to be authentic. Authenticity, however, can be very difficult to achieve and only comes together when the whole organization rallies around the brand purpose and the value propositions made to its customers.

Authenticity means saying what you will do, doing what you say and showing that you mean it. And American consumers desperately need it.

What the DMV Taught Me About Brand Trust in the Age of Algorithms

After I shifted my residency from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I put off for way too long the job of going to the DMV to change my driver’s license. When I finally went recently, it was just as awful an experience as I expected. While I did lose years off my life, I also came away with new insights about customer experience and brand trust in the age of the algorithm.

building trustAfter I shifted my residency from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I put off for way too long the job of going to the DMV to change my driver’s license. When I finally went recently, it was just as awful an experience as I expected. While I did lose years off my life, I also came away with new insights about customer experience and brand trust in the age of the algorithm.

Let me set the stage. After explaining my needs (license, registration) to a greeter, I was given a ticket with the the number D72. I then went to sit among 100 or so lost souls watching a ticker go by: A31, T76, F17, H125, B7, A32 C38 … And I watched. And watched. After about an hour it dawned on me that I had not seen one “D” number go by in all that time.

I wandered around seeking an explanation for this strange D-free streak. I saw a poster that said something like, “We have a numbering system that prioritizes the various services with an employee with the right level of experience and training. We find that this is most effective process.”

So in other words, “We have a sort of secret system, and will not really explain it to you, but trust us, it works (for us).”

Rather than provide comfort, this bit of bureaucratic prose only wound me up further: What does my “D” ticket say about me? Where do I stack in the pecking order? What trade-offs are they making that are invisible to me, and that cost me precious time? Should I have gamed the system by doing things one at a time? Can I swipe my neighbor’s faster-moving C ticket? (He’s sleeping on shoulder, so really wouldn’t miss it.)

My conversation with the greeter didn’t help matters. She explained that, yes, D tickets were really slow — harder to deal with. Plus, 11-3 was the lunch hour, and therefore things get really bogged down at that time. I opined that 11-3 was more accurately a lunch four-hours, not a lunch hour, representing nearly half the day. Her silent, reptilian stare chilled my spine and sent me back to my seat.

At four hours and twelve minutes, I gave up and handed the win to the State of Virginia and went home to drink heavily.

This is where the lesson for marketers comes started to dawn on me.

None of us would ever seek to recreate such an experience. But in the age of the algorithm, analytic optimization and the coming era of AI, we run the risk of inadvertently creating similarly mysterious and unsettling experiences — and thereby undermining brand trust.