The nature of 'brand trust' is changing. Are you?

Kennedy shares why actions are more important than words for companies today.

Over the course of my career I have sat in countless meetings where we review tracking studies and brand attributes. Inevitably "a brand I trust," or some version of this trait, is on the list. It used to be that "a brand I can trust" was a measure you could drive with a persistent and consistent advertising message, but those simpler days are behind us.

Companies will no longer automatically get the benefit of the doubt. Facebook, Wells Fargo and Uber may feel the need to run apology ads in heavy rotation, but that’s not going to rebuild long-term trust. Why? We learn to trust the people in our lives through their actions, not their words, and the same is true of companies.

Against a backdrop of "fake news," data misuse, and the crumbling integrity of those in positions of authority, companies have found themselves stuck in the middle, often being pressured by their own customers (or their employees) to take sides in the culture war. Is this the new normal? Is trust even achievable anymore? If so, how do companies and brands engender that sense of trust in a world that seems to have thrown up its hands? There are three shifts happening that can give us some insight into how to build trust in this new world:

1. From "data security" to "data reciprocity"

Every couple of weeks we read about another Fortune 500 company that has experienced a data breach where seemingly half of the US population has been compromised. While this lax protection of our data is one thing, the unauthorized sharing of our personal data is worse, because it is a sin of commission vs. omission. Cambridge Analytica didn’t hack your data — Facebook shared it with them, and that feels like much more of a betrayal. But whether we are talking about a data breach or an unauthorized share, data security is table stakes. Companies shouldn’t get points for doing what they say they are going to do.

Increasingly, the way that companies will create trust, and differentiate themselves from their peers, is by creating clear and consistent data reciprocity. That is, they must deliver and communicate in-kind value for the data their customers share with them. Customers are becoming much more aware of the value of their data, and have an expectation that the more information they give up about themselves, the more they should get in return. The challenge for us as users is that we don’t always know what that exchange rate is. Hence, the "privacy dilemma": How much should I share about myself? What will I get in return? How do I know if it will be worth it? Companies and brands that manage these expectations clearly will be trusted by their customers. Disney’s MagicBand is a great example of data reciprocity. While it gives up an enormous amount of information about me, it also delivers great benefits, and offers a clear value equation. Ultimately this approach builds trust with the Disney brand, because they are enhancing my experience in a transparent and straightforward way.

2. From "customer service" to "customer experience"

Customer experience is often held up as an end unto itself, and the business rationale for investing in CX is usually framed in terms of loyalty. Being great at "customer experience" means that a company is obsessed with its customers; that it listens and knows its customers; that it creates a proactive, personalized, and differentiated experience. A great experience creates the opportunity for people to see themselves in the fabric of the brand itself. And, yes, that drives loyalty -- but while loyalty is the end result, the real impact of a great customer experience is in how it drives trust.

Think for a minute about your personal and professional relationships. Think about someone you trust. Why do you trust them? What is it about them that creates the feeling that you can count on them? It’s tempting to say that we trust people we know, but closer to the truth is that we trust people who know us. How do we know they know us? They know what we need. They call at just the right time. They know what to say. They reach out because they are just thinking about us. Why should companies be any different? It feels good to be known. The companies that tend to do this really well are high-end hotels — they learn about their guests’ preferences and then proactively anticipate their needs. This is the entire Ritz-Carlton CX strategy in a nutshell, but you can see and feel it across other brands, whether it’s the response of company employees who have been supported by a customer-centric culture, or technology that uses my data to anticipate what I’ll need before I do. A company that knows me, and then acts on that knowledge consistently and over time, is much more likely to create and sustain a trusting relationship with me.

3. From "brand authenticity" to "brand activism"

Trust used to be something that you had to earn over time. But now everything moves so quickly that it feels like we have all been conditioned to trust first and ask questions later. We look for signifiers that create meaning and help us feel good about our choice. CREDO is a purpose-driven mobile phone company that donates a certain percentage of its revenue to progressive causes. Lacking the footprint of an AT&T or a Sprint, CREDO has established a level of trust with its customers by creating a shortcut for users to get a clear understanding of the values of the company. And when something goes wrong with my bill or my service, I am more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Patagonia and WeWork are other clear examples of brands that take purposeful action. Like these companies and others, more and more companies will increasingly look to not just "do no harm," but differentiate themselves through their actions. Companies that don’t take action will be perceived as out of step with their customers’ values, or worse, will be perceived as complicit in the problems facing the world, and those companies will certainly not be "a brand I can trust."

So, what’s the way forward? Trust is built, slowly and methodically, through action. Start with an experience blueprint that codifies the essence of your brand. Who are you? What does your organization believe? What design principles will help guide the path forward? Once you’ve answered these questions, you can begin to understand what actions your organization or brand might take for your customers to feel inspired and connected. It’s likely these actions will then lead to a whole list of briefs that will form an action plan for the organization to continue to build trust with its customers moving forward.

Harlan Kennedy is the founder and director of strategy at Venables Bell & Partners' experience design practice, VBP Orange.

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