What Brand Trust means – and why it matters

Trust isn’t just a brand metric – it’s far more important than that

April 21, 2021

What Brand Trust means – and why it matters

Trust: it’s something that most brands aspire to, that influences buying decisions across sectors, that consumers increasingly demand to feel when dealing with a business, and that’s essential to future growth. But what exactly is it? How can you earn it? And how can you defend it once you do?

These were the issues on the virtual table at the latest gathering of LinkedIn’s Big Minds Collective, the initiative that brings exceptional marketing agency leaders together to discuss the issues shaping the future of business and marketing. In this roundtable we spoke to Rachel Botsman; Oxford University’s first ever Trust fellow, author of What’s Mine is Yours and Who Can You Trust?, and a TED speaker whose talk on trust has generated over 5 million views so far. There’s nobody better to ask about what trust really means for innovation and growth in a post-pandemic world.

It was a session that exploded many myths about brand trust, how it works – and what it really means for business. And it left me with one clear thought. Trust isn’t just a peripheral metric for brands. It’s far more important than that. Here’s why:

Trust is not a general brand metric

When marketers talk about brand trust they tend to do so in general terms, as if it’s an attribute like awareness or loyalty that we can somehow quantify and track. Rachel is clear that this is misleading – because human beings don’t actually trust in this way. Trust isn’t a generalised emotion that you feel towards somebody or something. It’s contextual. Our trust is that people will do or not do certain things – and our trust in brands and businesses works the same way. Rather than just concerning ourselves with how much people trust our brand, we need to ask what they trust it to do.

We trust different brands for different reasons, because we trust them to do different things. You might trust a business to deliver your goods reliably and on time – but you might not trust that same business to treat its workers fairly. You might trust another business to engineer great cars but not trust it to compete fairly or protect the environment.

For these reasons, tracking brand trust becomes misleading, unless we ask more specific questions about what that trust relates to. However, the same characteristics that make trust less meaningful as a brand metric can make it a vital tool when planning marketing strategies – provided we define it in the right way.

If your growth strategy involves behaviour change then it needs trust

Rachel defines trust as a confident relationship with the unknown. It’s when you are comfortable about what will happen despite not having a guarantee of what that will be. And this puts trust at the heart of how innovation and growth strategies work.

Any time marketers ask people to do something new and unfamiliar, they’re asking them to take what Rachel calls, “a trust leap.” These can be large or small, depending on the perceived levels of risk and uncertainty involved. A bank switching from paper statements to online ones asks a lot less of customers’ trust than a record label launching an airline, for example. Asking people to input their credit card details into websites or buy from strangers on eBay involved huge trust leaps at the time. Now they feel normal.

You can’t understand your audience without understanding their trust state

As part of our session, Rachel shared a video that shows someone taking their first trip in a self-driving car. Their response when the steering wheel starts to turn by itself and the car accelerates and decelerates is fun to watch – but clearly not fun to feel. There’s panic – and desperate pleas to be put back in control.

Marketing campaigns for new product launches or new ways of doing things tend to frame them as exciting, enjoyable and satisfying – but if someone isn’t ready to take the trust leap, that’s not how the experience will feel. Rachel argues that many perfectly good innovations fail, not because they’re bad ideas or the launch campaign wasn’t up to scratch – but because the intended audience weren’t in the right trust state to embrace them.

The return to growth strategies that marketers and their agencies are now planning will involve reverting to behaviour that we’ve spent a year thinking of as risky – or potentially adopting new ways of behaving altogether. It’s naïve to assume that persuading people to make these trust leaps is simply a case of putting together the right piece of advertising – or coming up with the right product idea. We’ve a far greater chance of finding the real growth opportunities if we can understand and address the trust state that different audiences are in. Insights on the level of trust we currently have can inform both whom we target and how we tailor our messaging.

Earning trust involves two different brand traits

When it comes to designing the messaging to earn trust, we need to be clear about what type of trust we’re asking for. As Rachel explains, there are two general sources of trust that spring from different traits a brand is perceived as having.

Capability traits generate trust through demonstrating competence and reliability over time. People trust that a brand has the knowledge and resources to do what it says it will do. It’s capability that earns people’s trust that Amazon will get the right package to them within the time it promises – or that your new Volkswagen is well-engineered and reliable. Capability-driven trust takes time to build – but partly as a result, it’s often deeply rooted and resilient to shortfalls in other areas of trust.

Character traits influence trust through the perception of a brand’s integrity and empathy: do its intentions and interests align with your best interests as a customer? Do they match your own intentions and values? In many ways, character traits are the elements of trust that marketers engage with most often – since it feels relatively straightforward to declare them through the way that we communicate.

Start-ups and challenger brands often lean strongly on character traits to build trust in the early stages of their growth – but they can’t afford to rely on them permanently. Rachel describes how many such brands end up falling down on capability. The exceptions are those that match a strong character-led positioning with proven capabilities over time: think the quality of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, backing up the business’s values and brand personality, or the fact that Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability has consistently translated into quality outdoor clothing that lasts.

The real opportunity for brands lies in analysing where they rank on different trust traits – and identifying whether the levels and types of trust they currently have are the levels and types of trust they need for their strategies to succeed. The more marketers understand trust in this way, the better we’re able to calibrate our tracking of brand perception so that we’re focusing on the areas that matter most.

In a trust crisis, you need to talk character as well as capability

Understanding the real drivers of trust becomes particularly important when that trust comes under threat. The mistake that businesses often make when dealing with a breach in trust is to assume they can fix the problem with a message about capability. More often than not, it’s their character that they need to emphasise – and they need to do so quickly.

Rachel used the example of Boeing’s new CEO, Dave Calhoun. After he was appointed, in the middle of the biggest trust crisis in the brand’s history, he quickly switched the conversation from a technical one about fixing capability problems, to a conversation about culture – and addressing where Boeing had fallen short. Trust in the business has started to recover as a result. Calhoun recognised something that audiences instinctively understand. Behind every product, system or piece of engineering are people; people who reflect the character of the brand. When things go wrong, the systemic, root cause usually involves character – and it’s this form of trust that requires rebuilding.

Crucially, this can and should start to happen quickly. Rachel says that it’s a mistake for businesses to believe they have to figure out how to solve a problem before they communicate. It demonstrates a lack of empathy – and a lack of interest in listening and learning.

Samsung got the balance right when faced with the potential catastrophe of its Note 7 phones catching fire in 2016. The business went to great lengths to get all of the handsets back – even setting up trade-in booths at major airports and developing software to make the phones unusable so that people wouldn’t be tempted to keep hold of them. That demonstrated character through concern for customers’ safety. The brand then kept its Note 7 customers in the loop on capability, with 10,000 signing up for email updates on upcoming models to replace the faulty handsets. By October the following year, Samsung’s reputation score was higher than Apple’s.

Transparency is not the same as trust

Arguably the greatest misconception about trust is that you can earn it, protect it and restore it by being transparent. “You can trust us because we show you everything” feels like a natural claim to make – but Rachel argues that it’s actually a contradiction. Being transparent doesn’t build trust. It takes away the requirement for people to trust you – and eventually, it gets them out of the habit of doing so.

When the two are plotted as a line graph, increasing transparency grows trust to begin with, but that trust soon plateaus – and eventually declines. For a start-up or a challenger brand, transparency can be a valuable tool for helping to demonstrate capability or character – but if your audience only believe these things when they can see them, then trust doesn’t become part of the brand relationship.

This becomes a problem, because there are limits to transparency for almost every business. Very few are willing or able to offer full transparency into their operations, finances, governance and more. Ultimately, a business that’s trusted on capability and character has a far stronger brand than one that can only reassure customers when it shows them what’s happening.

Transparency is a management tool and an accountability tool. But that’s not the type of relationship that most customers want with your brand. They need to be able to trust you. And they need a marketing strategy that understands what they need, in order to do so.