Put trust at the heart of your organisation's culture

Continuing our business of trust season, Zone CSO Jonathan Simmons looks at the precarious nature of consumer faith in a digital world…

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Is it time for brands to add a chief trust officer to their c-suite? 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 be necessarily be addressed by the creation of a new CTO. The kind of trust I’m referring to goes to the heart of the consumer/organisation relationship in every sector and needs to be addressed through culture and system change.

I have been fascinated by Rachel Botsman’s new book, Who Can You Trust?, in which she points out that traditional institutions such as banks, charities, governments – the very foundations of our society – are losing trust. Yet, due to 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 how does a brand adapt to this 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 Rachel uses is how trust allowed Jack Ma (pictured), 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. 

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. But I don’t think that will be a problem: Apple’s customers trust Apple to deliver the best phone available, with the best features and best 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. And yet by cancelling all those flights in the past fortnight its reputation has nosedived once again.

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.

Can trust be regained? Yes, I believe so. As Rachel puts it: if your brand is serious about trust, start by finding the root 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 to regain. 

A version of this article first appeared in Campaign