Have we lost trust in brands?

When Cocunat, my favourite cosmetics brand, guarantees me a “toxic free” cream and communicates it to me with flawless copy, great design, and love for detail, I believe it. Just as when I buy a loaf of organic bread at Panod, I also trust that everything I read and experience is true. Or when I buy from Farmidable and they assure me that all their products are local, organic, and direct from the producer. Or when Moo tells me that my business cards are made from scraps of recycled cotton T-shirts that are normally thrown away.

It’s not true that consumers no longer trust brands. So what’s really going on?  

#The loss of innocence

We lost our innocence a long time ago. We are no longer those consumers of 40 or 50 years ago who had experienced moments of great scarcity and were happy with the possibility of buying anything.

At that time, a brand was a guarantee of consistency and quality versus a commodity. Brands were “trusted warehouses” according to a famous quote by a former Unilever president, Niall Fitz Gerald. “Ariel washes whiter” and “Coca-Cola is the spark of life,” claimed the advertisements of the time.

We now know that detergents that foam more may wash whiter but they contain phosphates and surfactants that pollute our rivers and seas. And the spark of life that has led brand rankings for so many decades contains up to 10 lumps of sugar per can and is a direct cause of diabetes and obesity as well as being one of the biggest plastic pollutants on the planet. Discovering this made us more suspicious, we started looking at labels, analysing prices and value propositions. We began to think that what brands tell us is either manipulated or directly invented.

But not always. And then?

#What are we talking about?

Trust expert Rachel Botsman in her book “Who can you trust?” defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown” and talks about an emerging third trust revolution, distributed trust, which goes beyond trust in the local products and services and centralised organisations. 

Distributed trust was born after the 2008 crisis with the explosion of platform branding: crowdfunding, peer-to-peer loans, open source projects, the MOOCS, the Wikipedia… and a multitude of transactions that bypass traditional institutions and centralised middlemen. They are tools that allow us to connect on a large scale with strangers, and create systems that act as social intermediaries. They match us with products, trips, dates, recommendations… On these platforms, clients are communities and the people who interact on them recommend brands. I have personally surprised myself by recommending my favourite brands. People who know and trust me will believe my recommendation much more than an ad from the company itself, and others will trust me simply because the collective experience has given me that authority.

So the signs of whom to trust are changing. Recommendations have always worked, but can now be achieved on a large scale, closing the gap between humans. Information that was in the hands of a few people is now scattered among many people and perhaps all over the planet.

#Do they deserve your trust?

There is so much trust in platforms that the problem is often the opposite: we place too much trust in untrustworthy brands.

Rachel Botsman warns us: “Ironically one of the problems we face today is the ease and speed with which we trust.” Platforms have become very vulnerable to large-scale spreading of misinformation and manipulation. It is very easy today to share a falsehood and alter people’s perception, to make misleading or greenwashing advertising.

 We have reached such a point in the “post-truth” era that we lack something very basic for a democratic society to live in: the ability to share a common body of facts, agreeing on what constitutes irrefutable truths. This is a serious danger for our brands. Who decides now what is true?

What brands then deserve our trust?

Those brands that have built their reputation by consistently demonstrating their competence (Danone can make yoghurt) and their reliability (a BigMac is a BigMac anywhere in the world) have half the battle won; what we traditionally call essential functional attributes, those that define the category and set the entry barrier. No one would buy an Iberia ticket if they thought this brand was not safe or that the flying experience would be random.

The other half is the final intention of the brand: are all stakeholders, including the planet, within its purpose, or is the intention still just to create value for the shareholders?; the alignment with my values, what do I share with the brand?; and its integrity, is it true what they tell me? That’s where many of the brands that succeed by the traditional parameters of success measurement sink in by hiding the ugly part of the stories we talked about in this previous post. The good thing is that now we discover it more quickly.

#What if it is an algorithm which decides whether we are trustworthy or not?

We have to be conscious that we live in a world where the opaque predictive algorithms that Google handles, for instance, already know if we are a profitable customer, a risky one, a good citizen or a reliable person. They are beginning to know us better than we know ourselves.

Shoshana Zuboff warns us in her book of the dangers of surveillance capitalism, which has commodified without our consent our last remaining bastion: our privacy. And they have turned it into huge dividends. They know who you are with, where you are, where you are going, what you talk about, what you buy, what you eat, whom you write to, who your friends are, how fast you type… they know everything about you and they sell that certainty.

At no other time in history have major brands had so much information about us, to the point of being able to modify our behaviour on a global scale, as the Facebook experiment showed. It is the Big Brother dream of any totalitarian government, as we are already seeing in some countries that are applying surveillance without mercy. It creates what Zuboff calls a new inequality and epistemic unfairness. The issue is so serious that the solution only lies in laws to regulate it and prevent it.

Is this a “confident relationship with the unknown”?

If, in addition, 90% of the data they collect is rubbish, as Gerry McGover shows, what is the logic behind so much waste of talent dedicated to this work? How long is this human futures market going to work?

#Do the rules of trust always work?

Search engines only show us 10% of the web, the tip of the iceberg. The other 90% is hidden, it is the deep web, where all the emails and everything that requires a password to enter are hosted. 5% is the Darknet, in which Internet users and page administrators browse anonymously, without disclosing IP; the information travels much more securely and only works with certain browsers. Anonymity makes it a refuge for the online black market and cybercrime and perhaps the future for everyone, if we want to protect ourselves from surveillance capitalism. 

As Rachel Botsman tells us, it seems, for example, that in the Darknet drug dealers are more honest. Sometimes they use logos and taglines with classic marketing messages, such as “Your satisfaction is our priority”.  Some even talk about fair trade, organic products, and ethical interests. Here too, reputation is important, and some brands add fake recommendations, as so many do on Trip Advisor.  The rules of brand trust work in any market.

#Trust in brands in times of Coronavirus

This post would be incomplete if it ignored the deep crisis that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused globally. So many things have changed and we have adapted so quickly that it is hard to remember what the world was like when agreements were closed with a handshake, we happily greeted everyone with two kisses, and measured the success of the events by the number of people we were able to bring together in real life.

We learned the true meaning of uncertainty. Many of us have gone through and are still going through very painful moments, which will leave deep scars on our society. At best we have lived through an endless groundhog day. If in the previous crisis we were comforted by hugging, in this one something has become very evident: our own vulnerability, the need to take care of each other, and a systemic view that overcomes that propensity to divide everything into non-communicating silos that makes solutions always incomplete. 

Social distancing has also put a lot of pressure on brands to act responsibly and to speak out against social injustice. We will trust those who in the most difficult moments have behaved ethically towards society and taken care of their people. In a society like ours, everything that acquires brand status should be able to guarantee our health, safety, and hygiene, but this has now become a must. We will rely on those brands that understand that this is a unique opportunity to reinvent and re-imagine the way we provide value.

#In search of lost trust

When we fall into disgrace, and sooner or later it happens to all of us, we should always remember that trust is relative and that it is important to detect what is causing the loss:

. If the crisis of trust has to do with our own ability to do what we promise, the ball is in our court. One of the basic rules of branding is to always keep in mind that the first and foremost thing is to offer a product or service that will pass all tests. What are we doing wrong? How can we remedy it to regain our reliability?

. If it is because… well, we have exaggerated a little, perhaps we have cheated by selling smoke because it is “aspirational” and not the real thing as yet, we have betrayed our values or taken some other action that caused a loss of trust, the remedy is also easy. Admit your own faults. Be transparent and human. Be generous. The more you pursue your own interests, the more I will distrust you to take mine into consideration. Be grateful. Think of others. Face problems head-on. Be positive. Be consistent. Repairing trust is difficult, but if it happens it creates more trust.

. Choose to be a trusted brand. With values. Good for the world. Be an activist. Stand up for what you believe in. Build an identity that reflects your way of being and what is worth fighting for, and share the same dreams and values as your customers. Your success will depend largely on the relationships of trust you are able to create. 

In this chaotic world in which we live, there is nothing more essential or fragile than trust. Psychologists tell us that the first bond we create at birth with our mother is trust, which is part of our survival mechanism.

Let’s take care of this vital asset as it deserves, even when no money is involved and no one sees us.

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