When it comes to brands, how much does trust matter? And if we lose it, can we get it back? These are just two of the questions explored in Rachel Botsman’s fascinating new book, Who Can You Trust?
According to Botsman, traditional institutions such as banks, charities, big brands and governments – the very foundations of our society – are losing trust.
The biggest driver of this is a lack of accountability. When the latest scandal hits the news – the banking crisis, Volkswagen’s emissions, Facebook’s failure to tackle fake news – consumers don’t see anyone at the top paying the price. Trust breaks down, there is an erosion of faith and the brand loses legitimacy.
It’s no surprise that, on the day of Alibaba’s IPO in 2014, Jack Ma used the word "trust" eight times within a minute.
At the same time, due to our faith in emerging technologies, we’re prepared to place our trust in total strangers, digital currencies and even bots. As a client put it when telling me about his forthcoming holiday, Airbnb evokes more trust than the 100-year-old Hilton Hotels.
So, with this move from institutional trust to "distributed trust", how does a brand adapt to the new landscape?
Trust is regularly discussed and measured inside businesses, but often it is just a concept tracked as a brand metric – "are we trusted?" – rather than in a more structured way: "what does the trust our customers have in our brand allow?" or "how is trust manifested in our customers’ actions?"
One example Botsman uses is how trust allowed Jack Ma, the boss of Alibaba, to overcome cultural norms in China and build one of the world’s biggest companies.
Among other innovations, Ma set up a bespoke payment system to reduce uncertainties between buyer and seller, and launched a certification service called TrustPass to give consumers confidence.
It’s no surprise that, on the day of Alibaba’s IPO in 2014, when being interviewed Ma used the word "trust" eight times within a minute.
You can see the value of trust everywhere. When Apple unveiled the iPhone X, many of the headlines were about a smartphone breaking through the £1,000 price barrier.
Look at the rise of Lyft in the US, seizing great chunks of Uber’s market share as consumers refused to hold their noses any longer.
But I don’t think that will be a problem: Apple’s customers trust it to deliver the best phone available, with the best features and security, and they are prepared to pay for that.
The Apple example is easy and there is a danger of dividing brands up into trusted/not trusted, which doesn’t just simplify brands but also treats the customer as one group.
When you view trust as what drives customer behaviour, you can see how different segments trust differently depending on sector, service and familiarity.
I might be prepared to put my credit card details on some websites, but in some cases I still use cash. I’ll buy a book from Amazon, but am I ready to buy a car? Asking what stage my customer is at will help develop trust along with new, relevant services.
Trust is precarious. Ryanair is an interesting case in point, because Michael O’Leary has spent the past five years successfully turning it from a company people were prepared to endure to one they actually liked.
Time will tell how much that matters, especially when you are the only carrier offering flights to a certain destination. Convenience can trump trust when there are no alternatives.
But when a more trustworthy competitor can come along offering the same product, for the same price, convenience no longer wins. Look at the rise of Lyft in the US, taking advantage of the #deleteuber campaign to seize great chunks of Uber’s market share as consumers refused to hold their noses any longer.
For some companies, especially tech businesses like Salesforce, the way to promote and protect trust is with a dedicated chief trust officer. So is it time for consumer brands to start introducing this role?
Adding a "C" is often the way an organisation recognises a trend, but while trust in 2017 is both an opportunity and, for many, a cause for concern, it’s not one that will necessarily be addressed by adding another chief to the the already crowded C-suite.
While such a leader could be useful to navigate the post-GDPR world, trust goes to the heart of the consumer-organisation relationship and needs to be addressed systematically through culture and system change.
I believe brands can regain trust. As Botsman puts it: if your brand is serious about trust, start by finding the route of your consumer mistrust.
If it’s pay and bonuses (as it often is), be honest and upfront about this, and fix it.
Stay true to your heritage and ask yourself: where does our trust lie? If it lies in, say, reliability, then perhaps asking your customers to experience "risky" new products is not right.
Trust is not a new concept, but like many things in the digital world it is easier to lose than ever before, has a bigger impact and is harder yet to regain.
Jonathan Simmons is chief strategy officer at Zone