Trust me, I'm a marketer

Colleen Ryan
By Colleen Ryan | 8 August 2022
Colleen Ryan. Image: Supplied

Colleen Ryan, Partner, TRA

Marketing does not top the list of any ranking of most trusted professions, it doesn’t even warrant being included in any. But the irony is that people trust the brands we market. That’s a big responsibility, made even more significant now that the Edelman Trust monitor shows there’s been a flip from trust in general being the default for the majority, to distrust being the default for more than 6 in 10 people.

Marketers can no longer assume their brands will be trusted, instead they’ve got to signal trust in everything they do. A deep dive by TRA asking people what makes brands trustworthy made it clear that trust must span brand and customer experience. Building trust in the brand while burying your contact centre details so deeply that no normal human could be expected to find them, isn’t how it’s done.

In Australia retailers have topped the charts of trusted brands during the pandemic.
Why? Connecting to what’s on people’s minds is a sure-fire way to build trust. Being locked down was a totally new experience for most of us and it focused everyone on the bottom layers of Maslow’s hierarchy – shelter and food – which is why retailers connected with people.

But brands can’t rely on suddenly becoming the most important thing in people’s lives. Post lockdown - as the focus shifts to broader issues - brands like McDonald’s build trust when they react to people’s environmental concerns and introduce paper straws. So, it’s hard to see Afterpay not damaging trust by becoming available in bottle stores at a time when people are showing concern over cost-of-living struggles.

Connection is one of the pillars of brand trust. Another is being famous. Fame is a trust signal, though rationally not a very reliable one. But in this regard people are not very rational. People feel first and think second (or not at all). We largely respond to things intuitively and we are hard wired to think that if something is well known it has stood the test of time and it’s most likely trustworthy. The best known brands always top the trust charts. Globally, brands like Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft often appear in ‘most trusted brands’ lists, despite the questions that are raised about the ethical standards they uphold. Post pandemic, Apple is creeping back up the trust rankings in Australia, likely due to their distinctive stance on privacy and the security of their customers’ data.

The other two pillars of brand trust are clarity and consistency. People trust brands that seem to have a plan, some sense of a vision or direction. It reduces uncertainty. Consistency is the same. If a brand has one cohesive narrative, it reassures people. It means they don’t have to be alert to contradictory signals or activity that arouses suspicion.

Brands are, by and large, pretty good at sending trust signals, so in today’s distrust default world they may simply have to turn up the volume. But it’s a different story for customer experience. So what’s going wrong?

Two things. One, customer experience has driven itself down a hole of diminishing returns in search of frictionless experiences. And, two, while brand owners are seeking to and spending to increase engagement, the customer experience owners (driven by cost reduction) are trying to minimise personal engagement. Where is the consistency in that?

The current accepted wisdom of customer experience is a single-minded ambition to make things easy and remove friction. You could argue that making things easy is a signal of trust. “Trust us, look how easy we’ve made it.” But it doesn’t really work like that because when things do what they are supposed to do we don’t really notice. We don’t see how much effort went in to making it that easy.

Transparency is an example of a trust signal in customer experience. Beauty Pie shows you how they are breaking down the costs of its products, for example, being completely transparent to the customer, signalling honesty and trustworthiness.

CBA (Commonwealth Bank of Australia) worked with researchers from Harvard Business School to understand if transparency was good or bad when people were choosing credit cards. A split sample showed one group only the benefits of the card, and another both the upsides and the downsides of the card. They found that people who opened an account after learning about a card’s downsides spent 10 percent more each month than customers who heard only the benefits. Their nine-month cancellation rate was also 21 percent less.

Brands need to introduce signals of trust into their customer experience. Flag what’s happening in the background to deliver the service to them, for example Domino’s Pizza lets you track your pizza.

Brands also need to pull back the curtains and signal trust through transparency and showing the effort they make because signalling trust at the brand level isn’t enough anymore.

If you don’t know what your brand’s level of trust is, how do you know if your signals of trust are strong enough? People identify with and so buy from brands they trust and if another brands’ signals are stronger than yours that’s a competitive advantage to them.

About Colleen Ryan

Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fuelled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.




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