The three bitter pills you need to take to restore brand trust

Regaining the trust of consumers poses a tough challenge, requiring major behavioural change and a leap of faith in your staff.

Over the years, Marketing Week has raised many weighty issues, not least the boardroom status of marketing, the future of curated media in a de-channelled world, and why the byline picture of Wally Olins makes him look uncannily like Dr Evil.

However, there’s probably no greater issue in marketing right now than “the trust deficit”. It crops up in every client meeting I attend, and every focus group I listen to.

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer showed a 30% decline in the UK public’s trust of banks between 2008 and 2011. Trust in the media declined by 9% in 2011 compared with the year before. And that was before the phone hacking scandal hit the headlines.

Trust is complicated. Trust is a response, not a stimulus. And there’s a difference between functional trust (that ATM machines won’t short-change us) and affective trust (that an organisation has our best interest at heart). Anyone who hopes to do more than skim the surface of the subject needs a guide, and one I’ve turned to more than once in the last month is the new book Why Should Anyone Buy From You? by Justin Basini.

The title makes it sound like a self-help manual for salespeople who are down on their luck, but it’s much more thought provoking than that.
Indeed, the amateur psychologist in me wonders whether it’s not something of a confessional because Basini is a former marketing director of Capital One, one of the most aggressive consumer lenders of the boom years.

During the course of a wide-ranging exploration of academic literature, and interviews with luminaries such as Robin Wight and Cilla Snowball, the book formulates a prescription for rebuilding brand trust. The medicine is strong stuff, and it doesn’t come sugar coated.

The first dose is about doing as you would be done by, and trusting your customers. In some categories, this represents more of a challenge than others. For example, I remember the hour-long discussion that ensued in the marketing department of a bank when it was suggested that the chains be removed from the pens on the counter tops.

Trusting your customers starts with trusting your own people. A few years ago, I was wrapping and packing in a John Lewis branch some of the best customer service research I’ve ever done. An elderly couple came up to the service desk clutching the most hideous mantelpiece clock I had ever seen and I grew up in the Midlands in the Seventies.

After five years of faithful service, one of the clock’s hands had fallen off and they wanted John Lewis to fix it for free.

The clock was clearly out of warranty, but the John Lewis partner who dealt with them checked whether spare hands could be located. On discovering that they couldn’t, the staff member in question phoned around and found a local clock mender who could do the job.

Few retailers would give their staff the discretion to waste so much valuable selling time. But John Lewis does. And that employee trust begets customer trust.

Basini’s second shot of powerful medicine is even more difficult for some to stomach. It’s about being comfortable with vulnerability.

Few people will forget Akio Toyoda’s moving acts of obeisance following last year’s quality issues with Toyota products. However, the reticence of the company in the early stages of the crisis was wrongly perceived as an act of denial.

In contrast, First Direct’s recent decision to stream customer’s Twitter feeds live onto its website demonstrates a degree of openness to vulnerability that few other company cultures would tolerate.

But it’s the last part of Basini’s prescription that is the most profound. Tellingly, it appears to have been inspired by an interview the author conducted with an 80-year-old Jesuit priest called Fr Jack Maloney, who really should get a column in this magazine. The priest asked Basini: “The jobs you’ve done, what were they for?” The author is stumped, but he gets the point.

To inspire trust, companies need a higher purpose than the creation of shareholder value. This means far more than just CSR, which often appears as an obligatory afterthought; the perfume sprayed into the air to disguise the stink of the pigsty.

To return to John Lewis, the stated aim of the Partnership is simple. It’s nothing less, and nothing more than “the greatest happiness of its partners”. Philosophers have long debated what “happiness” means, but one thing is certain it can’t be accounted for on a spreadsheet.

Yes, there are cheers backstage at every John Lewis in the country when the yearly bonus is announced, but in the Partnership’s case happiness also means ensuring partners are content with the ethics of their suppliers and the policies that ensure the fair treatment of customers.

Too often, CSR is simply eyewash (or greenwash). Basini argues that finding a long-term purpose means addressing a deep social need that aligns with the brand’s own mission. And taking action, not just talking about it.

When it comes to tackling the trust deficit, I am known to use a phrase attributed to a 19th century French anarchist that was once a rationale for political terrorism the propaganda of the deed that I think should be rehabilitated as a description of the approach brands now need to take.

Basini’s book shows that advertising cannot rebuild trust; it takes behaviour, aligned to belief. In other words, it’s time for less talk, more do.

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