Trust. It’s a bit of a hot topic at the minute. This fine publication’s new documentary The Trust Crisis shines a light on how faith in relationships across our industry have taken something of a battering lately; be it agency to client or, of course, brand to consumer.
It’s this latter typology that has begun to really shape the role of the modern communications agency.
Trust is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. A study by US think tank Pew Research showed that trust in US governments has declined at such a rate that it was higher for Nixon, the "crooked statesman", than it was for Obama at his time of election. Closer to home, the Brexit saga shows how little credence the British public lend to the pronouncements of politicians, economists and scientists.
It all comes down to this: do you have the capability (expertise, competence, vision) to do what you say you’re going to do?
When this distrust translates into the consumer/brand relationship, it can be hugely damaging. Trust can heavily influence all manner of positive consumer behaviours and drive growth and profitability. Indeed, it’s the emotion that brands - like the original red triangle of Bass Ale, arguably the first ‘modern brand’ - were invented to inspire in the first place.
In those days, a simple brand mark was enough to give buyers the confidence that the dark brown liquid in the bottle was going to taste as expected. Moving through the ages, advertising was enough to do the same job, because people were more likely to take advertisers’ statements at face value. But something has happened to the brand’s mantel as an unquestioned signal of quality. Just look at the decline of "book" brand value, charted by Harvard Business Review last year using a database of 6,000 mergers and acquisitions – they showed this shrinking from 18% to 10% of the average company valuation.
The digital age has made things somewhat more complicated. When a bad product review, angry tweet or PR crisis is just a click away, brands cease to be defined by advertising alone. It has become vital for companies to not just talk a good game but to deliver on those promises. That is, of course, the foundation of trust - that I believe you’ll do what you say you’re going to do.
Follow up your words
We’ve done a lot of research into what, at a psychological level, drives trust. And the literature is remarkably consistent across a number of studies and research papers. It all comes down to this: do you have the capability (expertise, competence, vision) to do what you say you’re going to do? And do you care enough (by being a company that puts consumers first) to keep your promises?
As you can see, driving trust requires a calibration at the heart of the business; it’s not a sticking plaster or fresh lick of paint.
Given all this, the primary role of an agency starts to change. Our job becomes one that helps brands become the most authentic version of themselves; one that "walks the walk"; one that leaves hollow promises to the politicians.
A brand’s culture is the engine of trust. It provides the values, rites, vernacular and overall purpose of the organisation that ultimately manifests in contact with customers; via the delivery of products, customer service and of course communications.
I’m sure there are many ways to build and nurture brand culture. The quote attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, that "culture eats strategy for breakfast" dates back to 2006; and Holt & Cameron’s excellent "Cultural Strategy: Using innovative ideologies to guide breakthrough brands" was published back in 2012. So there’s a wealth of differing views on how to build the perfect culture.
A brand's raison d’être
Perhaps we’re over-thinking it. The simplest way to start is with a deceptively straightforward question: "how does our company make the lives of our customers better"? The aim is to get to the heart of the value that the brand creates for consumers; be it functional, emotional or social.
Once a brand has distilled and articulated this raison d’être, it should inform absolutely everything that a company does. This expands the role of the agency from communications to consultancy; helping clients to shape the organisation and resulting output – be it products, brand experiences and the occasional advert.
As Billy Joel once posited, it really is a matter of trust. Because in a perfectly transparent world, pretenders will be outed and only the authentic will thrive.