someone  hiding behind a couch
PHOTO: Lucas van Oort

It has become fashionable to talk about a “trust crisis” in American business and society. Collectively, the business world does seem to have a massive trust problem without easy solutions. Individually though, brands can do much to establish, grow and retain trust. Why and how to do that is the subject of this article.

First, let’s examine the trust problem through data. What is expected of a brand? How does trust influence a brand’s success?

Second, let’s identify why trust seems so rare right now. How do business environments strengthen or weaken trust?

Third, we’ll look at how trust can be expressed through brand strategy, marketing content, and the day-to-day operations.

Trust: A Rare Commodity

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed over 34,000 people in 28 global markets, found that four of the world’s most important institutions — government, business, NGOs, media — are not trusted. Although business was perceived to be “competent,” it was not seen as “ethical.” That tracks with polling by Gallup, which finds that two-thirds of adults worldwide — including 60% of Americans — believe corruption is “widespread in business.”

Trust, however, is a competitive edge. Edelman found that trust is the second most important brand attribute, after price and affordability, when consumers decide to buy a new brand or become a regular customer. Trust has a strong positive correlation with loyalty, engagement and advocacy.

Perhaps the most striking part of the Edelman trust analysis is how high expectations have become for brands. Consumers now look to brands to solve their problems (85%), solve society’s problems (80%), and enrich their life (73%).  

Tall order, no?

Related Article: How to Handle the Crisis of Consumer Trust

Trust Is Primal

What is trust? It came up recently in a course I’ve been taking at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. Evolutionary biologists believe that trust is a survival strategy. In an environment filled with predators and hostile groups, human beings had a better chance of passing on their genes if they worked together rather than alone. For a group to function cohesively, as a community, it needs trust: “Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something” according to Oxford Languages.

What fuels such a belief? The consistency and quality of our interactions with people. When we interact with a brand in person, it’s easier to establish that belief. In a store, there’s a manager, call him “Dave,” who sells me goods. I know Dave by name and know where he works. If I have an issue with my purchase, I can seek help from Dave, who has a reputation to uphold. My trust in the brand is based on my relationship with Dave.

But online, we substitute content for Dave. Think about how radical that is. Marketers ask potential customers to build a relationship with a website, a virtual place that facilitates exchanges of information, including payment data. That is weird!

At the same time people are losing trust in businesses, they are being asked to connect with brands in a non-human, often impersonal form. No wonder trust seems so rare and precious.

Related Article: Customer Trust: Are We Experiencing an Existential Crisis?

Simple Problem, Complex Solutions

I wish the solution were straightforward: put in controls during your content creation process to ensure brand consistency; set appropriate expectations; express empathy; create human connection through live events, face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) interaction and customer service; and when your brand makes mistakes, own it.

All that would help, but it’s not that simple.

Consider Apple. It is attempting to differentiate its brand through privacy and security. In one of Apple's recent TV ads, people overshare embarrassing information: their browsing activity, login passwords, feelings about coworkers, biometrics and whether they’re pregnant. "Some things shouldn’t be shared. iPhone helps keep it that way," reads the commercial.

Apple’s message: we’ll keep your personal life private. The Apple logo in the commercial is even animated to appear as if it’s being secured with a classic, locker room padlock.

On the one hand, Apple is trying to establish itself as a trusted repository for your digital life. On the other hand, Apple is struggling to preserve the trust of its App Store developers that, led by Fortnite maker Epic Games, have accused the brand of monopolistic behavior.

Apple might convince consumers that it is trying to solve their problems and society’s problems while enriching their lives (to use Edelman’s terms). But the publicity storm around Epic Games could undercut Apple’s claims to be trustworthy.

Frankly, most consumers don’t have the time or motivation to untangle he-said-she-said maneuvering in the media, which is suffering its own trust problems. This leads me to the key point about trust in an impersonal business environment.

Related Article: Revitalizing the Consumer-Brand Trust Economy

Trust Is Omnichannel

Whereas a local, family-owned business builds trust primarily in one channel — their storefront — a brand like Apple fights for trust in its stores, through partner retailers and marketplaces, on its website, in the news, across social media, and in numerous cultures and languages.

A brand like Apple has an uncountable number of chances to make or break trust. Every interaction, on every channel, matters to some degree. The quality and consistency of their content, in its myriad forms, shapes trust — arguably more than one media controversy. 

My advice, particularly in this ongoing year of chaos and hardship, is to make trust part of your brand strategy. Be that rare oasis of trust that consumers seek in a desert of deceit. It begins with your culture, management style, operations, sourcing and business model. It is sealed in the day-to-day communications and interactions you have with various stakeholders.

Everything your brand does must be oriented around cultivating trust. Just imagine a world where brands (and politicians, activists, reporters, etc.) were renowned for solving our problems and society’s problems while enriching our lives. We’d have the opposite of a trust crisis: a plethora of strong, inclusive communities that share common visions but still hold healthy, vigorous debates about how to thrive as a society.