Trust is more complex than most people imagine. There are various types of trust and they affect decision-making in different ways. Our findings in this article are based on many years of qualitative research for clients in different sectors, along with some Gravity proprietary work. We have found that trust doesn’t always matter from a customer perspective. There are different shades of trust and many purchases are made with just partial trust – or none at all.
Levels of trust
Trust is a portfolio word with levels of meaning, depending on context and perspective. In marketing it is strongly linked to brand loyalty: trust makes brands easier to choose.
Trust is driven by the expectations and perceptions that customers have of a brand’s products or services and also by what happens when things go wrong. We have identified three broad ‘trust types’.
‘I trust this proposition’: short-term or one-off trust based on specific information about an offer. The organisation behind the offer enjoys limited trust. The customer overlooks this because of one or two tangible and immediate benefits – often price, convenience and/or desirability. Buying once from this brand doesn’t automatically mean it will be high on the candidate list next time.
The words of a budget airline customer bring this ‘trust type’ to life: “It’s a great price. There will be a plane and it will go from A to B. It may not be on time; it probably won’t be a good experience. If we’re late for the flight or we have too much baggage or something, they’ll rob us blind. But we’re a big family and we’re on a budget, so I take the risk.”
‘I trust their propositions’: a longer-term, broader trust, usually based on experience. The organisation is felt to stand behind its offers. It will put things right without a fight if they go wrong. Here, the organisation is likely to be high on the customer’s candidate list next time.
Here’s an example: “I usually get my home deliveries from Tesco. They’re not the cheapest, but they turn up on time, they’re good value and I like their own-label range. They do sometimes send things with quite short sell-by dates, but when I ring up and complain, I know they’ll send me a voucher.”
‘I trust them’: long-term warmth and approval. This may be based on a strong all-round reputation, an ethical stance, shared values, a shared interest or style. The customer likes the way this organisation does business and feels the organisation values them and their custom. The organisation is likely to be a first port of call when relevant, is likely to get good word-of-mouth and even has permission to make mistakes. Higher-level trust makes decision-making easy.
“When my South West train is late in the morning, I’m instantly annoyed – it’s ’typical’. But when John Lewis called to tell me they hadn’t managed to get my dishwasher on the van that day, I thought ‘bless’. Mind you, they called me early, were very apologetic and offered me compensation. They look after their staff and they’re always helpful; you know they’re trying their best.”
So when does trust actually matter?
Trust is a hot topic with politicians and the media, as well as with brand owners. Many are worried about erosion of trust leading to cynicism and disengagement.
From a customer perspective, there are several factors that determine the effect of trust on behaviour:
- Is a meaningful choice perceived to be available? In this case ‘meaningful’ means taking into account factors like price and convenience as well as the actual number of choices in the market. If there is no realistic alternative, trust is irrelevant.
- How important is trust to the person making the decision? Some people prioritise higher levels of trust. For example, those with strong ethical principles may go out of their way to buy from brands that they feel share their values, while price-driven customers are happier to compromise on higher levels of trust much of the time.
- How easily does the person making the decision trust? Some people are readily inclined to trust, while others need more evidence before they feel a sufficient degree of confidence. This ‘ease of trust’ can vary, depending on how much is perceived to be at stake on a particular buying occasion. We find, however, that people have a natural trust style. Those who are inclined to trust may do so based on instinct or something as simple as a smile or a free cup of coffee, even when choosing a big item, such as a car or a mortgage.
- How engaged is the customer in the category? Is there a strong feeling of need or desire? People tend to be more intuitive and more decisive in categories they feel strongly about. Those who put an emphasis on trust may actually put this aside when they see something they really want – a sexy car, a beautiful pair of shoes or a delicious-looking cake.
Together these factors reveal some interesting patterns. Those who are inclined to trust can jump intuitively to a decision in a high-engagement category, but may struggle to make a decision in a low engagement category. Our busy lives preclude us from making considered decisions on every purchase, so sources of proxy trust become important – relationships, word-of-mouth, perceived norms and, increasingly, online reviews and comparison engines.
So should we be worried?
From a marketing perspective, there are reasons for concern. As brand trust gets weaker, so does brand loyalty. The proliferation of price comparison sites and online review sites is a corollary of this – a symptom and accelerator of the trend. The emphasis on proxy trust, along with easily measured and compared factors such as price, may make it harder to build unique brand equities – potentially a downward spiral for brand marketing.