Beware the trust trap

Trust may be an essential foundation for business, but marketers place far too much faith in it at the expense of other brand qualities, says Andy Nairn

Who do you trust these days? In the light of recent news stories, it might be wise to double check. From Gordon Ramsay’s daredevil fishing exploits to the naming of Blue Peter’s kitten, trust in broadcasting is in short supply.

However, the collapse in trust has not been confined to our TV screens. The business world has also been rocked by several high profile breaches. From the Northern Rock crisis to clothing retailer Gap’s “sweatshop” scandal, the idea of corporate integrity has been much discussed. Meanwhile, allegations of price fixing, made by the Office of Fair Trading, have shaken the supermarket and airline industries.

In the face of these high profile stories, commentators have turned their attention to the public, and its reaction to these events. Many have been quick to note how consumers have become more cynical. Empowered by new technology, they have become far better informed about corporate wrongdoing and are less forgiving of companies that let them down.

Some observers have gone further, suggesting that a supposed decline in corporate trust simply reflects a similar decline in faith elsewhere in our culture. From the monarchy to government to the church, long established pillars of society are being called into question and with varying degrees of disrepute.

The assumption beneath all this hand-wringing seems to be that trust is “a good thing”. While this is not exactly a controversial idea – trust is, after all, an essential foundation for doing business without which no company can hope to succeed – it hides a more surprising truth: that trust can actually be a trap for marketers.

There are four reasons for this. First, trust is something of a catch-all phrase. It is one of the most overused words in the marketing lexicon, appearing with embarrassing regularity as a brand value in pyramids, research debriefs and advertising briefs and used as a metric by countless other organisations. Its very ubiquity promotes sloppy thinking and lazy deductions. Trust, rather than being a deeply held value, often becomes a shorthand concept that is rarely dissected to any meaningful degree.

Second, trust is rarely differentiating. The high profile lapses previously outlined are exceptions, rather than the norm. Most products in most markets are trusted – it is a basic, entry level quality that is simply assumed. Whereas VW once stood for “reliability” this is no longer a sustainable positioning in a world where all cars work.

Third, trust is a relatively passive concept that is unlikely to stir much emotion among consumers. These days brands need a more active, engaging relationship with consumers to succeed. Fuzzy warm feelings that a brand is OK are no match for burning desire, passion and aspiration. For proof, think of the world’s most iconic brands, such as Apple, Virgin, Google and BMW. Are these brands trusted? Sure. But much more than that, they are lusted over, argued about and dreamed about.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, trust can breed complacency. Because trust is such a comforting measure, a reassuringly static quality that is usually slow to decline (barring the exceptional collapses mentioned above), it can often deceive marketers and agencies into the notion that all is well with their brand. It can encourage incremental change, rather than revolution. It can breed recessive advertising, rather than communications that will cut through and get talked about. It can stifle innovation, on the basis that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

There are many famous brands existing today that consumers trust implicitly; the problem is that these same consumers are not actually buying them. For a marketer to focus on this metric alone is the equivalent of papering over the cracks in a wall. In the short term all will appear to be fine, but the underlying problems will remain and often worsen, and by the time trust does decline it may be too late to tackle a brand’s more fundamental issues.

So should we place our faith in trust? Certainly, trust is a necessary condition for doing business, but not a sufficient one. While ignoring it can have disastrous consequences, obsessing over it to the exclusion of everything else can also prove catastrophic.

Andy Nairn is planning director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

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