The ‘trust equation’ is often used as a blueprint for leadership and can equally be applicable as a blueprint for future brand growth. Created by Charles Green, founder of Trusted Advisor, it suggests your trustworthiness is equal to the sum of your credibility, reliability, and intimacy, divided by your level of self-orientation, or self-interest.
Applying that model, to trust a product, consumers have a number of basic requirements: it should do what it says on the tin; it should do it consistently; and the consumer should have some kind of relationship with the brand, even if it’s just a customer services telephone number. It should also meet the accepted standards for its category.
During the pandemic, the market leaders in the FMCG space have grown market share because people have gravitated towards the brands they knew they could trust – the ones that meet all these criteria.
That level of trust is hard-won over months and years. But today, the jeopardy of getting it wrong and losing that trust is huge. Thanks largely to social media, years of trust can be destroyed in a matter of minutes.
Today, every business is dealing in at least three products – the item or service they produce, the content and community they create to build the brand, and the data they use to inform every decision around it. Brand trust is no longer enough; it has to be accompanied by digital trust and data trust.
Even your average soap powder brand may know something about you – household data, preference data, payment data. If that leaked or ended up somewhere it shouldn’t be, that fragile ‘covenant of trust’ between brand and customer is broken. If the content team makes claims that can’t be backed up – or, worse still, has the wrong ‘take’ on a political or social issue – word that the brand is tone-deaf spreads like wildfire. With just one Google search, customers can debunk any overblown claims and broadcast those findings far and wide.
Businesses don’t even have to be actively incompetent to break the trust covenant; it can happen if they simply fail to live up to consumers’ growing expectations for radical transparency and honesty. Gone are the days when all a company had to do to appear trustworthy was to advertise on TV, relying on consumers to assume that, if the brand could afford it, it meant the business was sound.
The importance of honesty
But all is not lost for brands today. Let’s take the ‘intimacy’ part of the brand trust equation: however you define intimacy, it’s about being open and honest.
Look at the example of KFC, when it ran press ads after briefly running out of chicken. The letters ‘FCK’ on the iconic bucket were the hero image – and implied were the three Hs of humility, humour and honesty. It was a rip-roaring success.
Brands that have suffered worse failings than this have also managed to get everything back on track. British Airways and Marriott are just two UK examples of brands that have been fined for security breaches relating to customer data. But when brands come out and apologise, as they did, providing authenticity and transparency on what they’re going to do to fix it, eventually all the noise gets put behind them. Despite the purported consumer discomfort around data-sharing, evidence from very digital- or data-heavy sectors like government and financial services shows that, in reality, most people are comfortable sharing their personal information.
And even in events that rock fundamental consumer trust in a sector, such as the financial crash of the late 2000s, there are positives, through opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs to set things right. We’ve seen that particularly in fintech, which has created digital services with a data-trust layer that a lot of consumers are very comfortable with.
There is, of course, the flipside of too much honesty, which can undermine credibility. But, in reality, few brands go down that route. Instead, today’s businesses see the value of opening up to consumers about their supply chains, their purpose or how they treat their employees. And they’re more willing to admit fallibility.
This is the final part of the equation – self-orientation. So just how humble do brands need to be? Of course, the answer is not sack cloth and ashes. Who would want to be the shareholder of a company whose CEO prostrates themselves before the customer at every slight, doling out refunds like sweets?
Brands that display the right level of self-orientation make the balance work. Take Patagonia, the clothing company. A highly purpose-driven social enterprise, part of its sustainability pledge has been to repair damaged garments for free. It could simply sell a new item – and the repairs are being done at a loss – but the trust capital it gains by having lower-than-usual self-orientation only serves to reinforce the affinity existing customers feel, and the desirability among potential ones.
Making the trust equation work so the brand, digital and data trust tenets remain unbroken has been a challenge up to now. Most businesses are still operating in silos, with technological and physical set-ups that make failure in one or more of the intimacy, credibility or reliability factors too likely. Gradually, however, we’re starting to see change. The chief digital and chief data officers are beginning to blend together, creating the standards and stewardship that you need to build collaboration with the brand owner.
Ultimately, it starts with the organisation. It starts with a charter and with a purpose in building brand, digital and data trust into a cohesive strategic direction, laid down by the C-suite.
The cost of breaking consumer trust has never been higher. But during times of uncertainty such as these, people rush for certainty, and that’s what brands can offer by getting the trust equation right.