What it takes to build brand trust today

Trust is becoming crucial to how audiences engage with brands. How can marketers respond?

September 11, 2019

What it takes to build brand trust today

This can feel like a crazy time to talk about building trusted brands, as I’ve been doing at DMEXCO this week. We live at a time when trust itself seems to be on a steep decline. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the majority of the population in most countries don’t trust governments, businesses or the media. People are more engaged with the news, up 22 percentage points in fact. However, that news tends to involve tales of corporate scandals, abuse of data, fake stories and a breakdown of leadership. We’re seeing a trend towards people taking direct action – but that action often comes from frustration at abuse of power. Audiences and members of the public have had their fill of people and institutions they don’t trust. And this is the same for the media channels they consume.

It’s easy to look at all of this and assume that people no longer trust brands either – that they no longer want that type of relationship with them. What’s perhaps surprising is that some of the most cynical people in this regard are those building and managing the brands themselves. In the latest Thought Leadership Impact report, an annual study that LinkedIn conducts with Edelman, suppliers of thought leadership are far less likely than those consuming it to believe that it enhances their brands’ reputation – or increases trust in their organisations. In fact, they are around half as likely to believe in their ability to earn trust as their audience are. As marketers, I think we should find this statistic shocking – we seem to have given up. We’ve fallen into the trap of believing that we are powerless in influencing our own reputation and building relationships founded on trust.

Brands can’t afford to be cynical about brand trust

And yet, this cynicism is badly misplaced. People may find it difficult to identify brands that they can identify with and trust – but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped looking. The greatest obstacle to building a trusted reputation for your brand is a refusal to invest in doing so; a refusal to believe that it’s really possible. Look at the data, and you’ll see that there are huge opportunities for those who see beyond this. People have a real appetite for trusting brands. We are just not giving them the brands they can trust.

In the Edelman Trust Barometer, there’s one very notable exception to the general rule of prevailing distrust – and that’s the fact that the business people feel closest to is the one they work for. Three quarters of the world’s population trust their employer – that’s around 50% more than trust any other institution. Employers are seen as trustworthy sources of information on the most divisive societal issues. They are far more likely to be believed on subjects like the future of the global economy or the impact of technology than any other institution.

How shared purpose drives trust in businesses

What builds this trusted relationship with an employer? The answer is a shared sense of purpose. More than two-thirds of employees (67%) say that they now expect this from the business they work for – and in the Trust Barometer, it’s societal impact, values, a vision for the future and a clear mission and purpose that are the key drivers of employee trust.

There’s no doubt therefore, that people can trust a business – in fact they actively seek out and align with at least one business in life that they will trust on the issues that they care most about. The big question is: can this trust translate to other businesses and brands? As a marketer can you engage other audiences on the same level as your own employees?

The business case for investing in trust

Take a look at the LinkedIn and Edelman thought leadership study and you find that 86% of business decision-makers say that thought leadership enhances a brand’s reputation and increases their trust in an organisation. Staying on top of the latest brands is one of the top five reasons why LinkedIn members engage with content on our platform. Gartner’s Corporate Brand Survey has shown how alignment with a brand drives budget allocation and behaviour. A high personal connection to a brand means that you are more than 3.5x more likely to pay a premium for it. It’s possible to build these types of deeper, trusted connections – but you have to be willing and ready to do it.

You can’t build a better brand reputation if you’re not prepared to allocate time and budget to actually building a brand. Research from Les Binet and Peter Field confirms that brand and activation marketing work in very different ways, on very different timescales. You can’t create a brand just by doing a lot of sales activation. You have to consciously invest in the right type of activity, that can drive the types of emotional response that build long-term memories. You can’t drive sustainable, long-term growth without doing this – and you can’t hope to influence your trust and reputation as a brand without doing it, either.

But here’s the secret sauce. If you want to build brand trust, you have to prioritise it. Trust is earned, not bought, and earning it involves having a strategy that aligns with how influence works today.

The principles of influencing brand reputation

There’s been fascinating research in this area from Dr. Tali Sharot and her team at The Affective Brain Lab, which recently worked with the consultancy MHP on a report detailing The Networked Age. In it, Dr. Sharot’s team describe eight key psychological principles that communicators have to understand if they want to influence how people feel about their brands. They include the importance of intuition – and the fact that we are significantly more open to being influenced by people we perceive as experts, and who believe share our own values. Another key element of these principles is that we gravitate towards the views of those around us, and seek out people who hold our own deeply shared worldview. We are tribal – and the way that brands seek to influence people and build trust has to reflect this.

There are two obvious conclusions about what makes a trusted brand that I’d like to leave with you with. The brand has to be human: communicated through authentic, credible individuals. And that brand also has to have clear and differentiated values and purpose. It has to stand for something – and that has to involve having the courage to stand against things too.

Building a human brand through thought leaders

On the human side, building trusted brands involves leveraging three types of influencers: the actively engaged employees of the business, who are already aligned with its values and have a license to discuss them with their peers; relevant internal experts who may not have massive reach but massively tick the box on perceived credibility; and business leaders, who remain one of the most under-used brand assets of all.

The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that people are more likely to trust CEOs to do the right thing than they are to trust politicians or national leaders. Leaders play a key role in growing trust in employers, with 71% of employees saying it’s now critically important for their CEO to respond to challenging times. However, it’s not just their own CEO that people trust in this way. In fact, 76% say that CEOs should take the lead on change in areas like prejudice, discrimination, the environment and preparing for the future – and that they shouldn’t wait for governments to impose direction. This marks an increase of 11 percentage points over a year ago.

We can see the rise of the CEO as a lever of trust in activity on LinkedIn. Top executives like Satya Nadella at Microsoft or Ben Van Beurden at Shell are posting in-depth articles around 4-5 times a year, a frequency that builds influence while retaining authority and credibility. However, they are also supplementing this type of thought leadership with shorter-form posts, shares and comments that demonstrate authenticity. When business leaders act as human beings and show their values on their sleeve, it dramatically increases their influence on brand and reputation.

Leading through experts – with purpose

A more human approach to building brands aligns with many of the principles of influence: our instinct to judge by intuition and respond to people whom we recognise as experts. However, the tribal nature of influence makes other demands of brands too. We’re influenced far more by people who share our values. That has to mean leading with purpose. And if that purpose is going to mean something it has to be a purpose that we’re prepared for people to disagree with. It has to involve taking some well-calculated risks.

Corporate brands are far less distinctive than we like to think they are. In Gartner’s Corporate Brand Survey, only 29% of respondents felt that a given company was really distinguishable from its competitors. A lot of that lack of distinctiveness comes from a reluctance to take a stand – and yet, if we look in detail at the data on trust and influence, that’s what we need to do if we want to build brand reputation.

There’s been one incredibly powerful example of this recently – and that’s Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, supporting the quarterback who took a knee during the US national anthem at NFL matches, in protest at police brutality and racial discrimination. Most brands would be reluctant to take sides on a subject as sensitive and divisive as this – especially as large number of Americans, including the President, interpreted Kaepernick’s protest as unpatriotic and an insult to military veterans. Nike knew that taking a stand would cost the business in some respects – and it did. Incensed consumers took to social media to show pictures of themselves burning Nike products. A sizeable chunk of the customer base decided to boycott the brand.

However, the benefits of Nike taking a stand and putting a definite position and values out there, increased influence and reputation among those aligned with the stand by far more. It built trust – and that dramatically increased brand value. The company’s sales increased by $6.38 billion and its stock value rose by 6.25%.

Let’s make no mistake – that Nike campaign was definitely not a no-brainer at the time. It felt like a risk that was guaranteed to antagonise large numbers of people and cost it customers. But in today’s environment, the opportunity to build a genuinely trusted reputation among people who share your values counts for more.

Choosing the right environment and audience

It’s not just how you choose to build a trusted brand, or whom you choose to build it through that matters. Where you choose to do it counts as well. If you want to reach people who are in the right mindset and open to being influenced by you, who are interested in your values and who are likely to identify with them, then you have to make sure that you are in the right environment. And for most businesses and brands, that environment is LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is by far the most trusted social media platform – a clear number one in Business Insider’s Digital Trust Report. And the profile and mindset of its members also supports the building of trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer finds a significant trust gap between the general population, who are generally distrustful of institutions, and the ‘informed public’ of college-educated professionals, who are engaged with news, in the top 25% of household income for their market, and more open to trusting businesses and brands. These people are significantly more likely to be found on LinkedIn.

The greatest strength of LinkedIn as a trust-building platform, though, is the way it enables brands to deploy all of their most important forms of influence: customers, employees and stakeholders. This is an environment where engaged employees can be empowered to talk about your business; where audiences expect thought leadership from your credible experts; and where CEOs have a natural role as influencers.

When we take a step back from the craziness of fake news, the current political environment and the breakdown of institutions and platforms, it’s clear that there is an environment, an opportunity and an appetite for trusted brands. The only thing remaining is for marketers to take that vital first step – and be willing to use it.