8 Pillars For Building Trusted Brands

Mark Di SommaJuly 31, 20176 min

As accusations of “fake” accelerate and diversify, how should brands build trust today? What are the key signals to consumers that a brand is worth believing in—or even just, believing.

Once, it was easy to build trust. You used mass media to establish profile and credibility, you became a “household name” and that was pretty much it. No longer of course. The splintering of channels, new levels of transparency and increasing expectations from customers have made just ‘being’ a trusted brand almost impossible. Trust is now far from a given.

I suppose we shouldn’t really be surprised. Trust itself has been declining for some time. But while the decline throws a lot of things into question, it also, as Chris Wren pointed out recently, represents “an unprecedented opportunity for (the right) brands to step up; to inspire by their actions, and demonstrate responsible stewardship for the multiple moments of happiness, satisfaction, connection, delight, cleanliness and all of the other feelings we associate with a positive brand experience.”

So what factors should brands be using today to establish credibility? How do you inspire feelings of “happiness, satisfaction, connection, delight” among consumers who’ve been regularly promised too much and delivered too little?

Before we get into that, let’s pause to consider how brand trust is built. Mark Babbit suggests there are four critical components:

  • History – your brand’s track record in terms of stability and consistency
  • Capability – the capacity and resources your brand has to deliver on what it has undertaken to deliver in the market
  • Alignment – the extent to which your brand aligns philosophically with the priorities and philosophies of customers
  • Transparency – the degree to which your brand is prepared to be honest if and when things go wrong.

Trust going forward is clearly referenced by the depth of reliability that a brand can draw on from its past—particularly for the first three of these measures, and in that sense trust is like reputation in that it’s critical to have credits in the brand bank. But previous behaviors, while very important, are not the full answer in my view. How your brand behaves now and into the future are also critical components in building faith:

1. Make Sure Your Product Does What It Says On The Tin. Deliver what you said you would deliver. Obvious, right? Of course, but there are still plenty of companies that judge their delivery by their capabilities and forget to compare what they deliver with what others are delivering around them. That matters because the best delivery, the greatest reliability, the most timely product/service—that’s the real benchmark against which you are being graded. Doing your best and doing the best are different ideas—and actually, different standards. Say what you do. Do what you say. Excel in a way that your brand can own. Be clear about why that matters. And do it all consistently.

2. Be More Than Available. It’s easy to confuse accessibility with availability. Most brands make themselves available—on their terms. Powerful brands are accessible. People feel they can talk to them, and that the answers they will get back are authentic and based on a genuine wish to help. That’s not just about active social media and contact centers (although that helps). It’s about cultivating a generous spirit of listening and conversation across your culture. As communications become more short-form, the ability to talk directly and meaningfully has never been more important. Brands that take the time to interact build ‘eye contact’.

3. Have Rules That Work For Your Customers. It’s easy to build a business that has rules that work for you. It’s much more difficult to build a brand where the rules work to let customers know exactly where they stand. Brands looking to build trust do two things in this regards: they keep things starkly simple; and they articulate what they won’t do as clearly as they state what they will do. Purpose-driven brands are a great example of this. They operate to clear principles and they are consistent in how they articulate those beliefs and what they engage in based on those beliefs. In a world still packed with terms and conditions, the binary nature of rules—what a brand accepts and what it doesn’t—can be a powerful trust-building factor.

4. Take Responsibility. Increasingly, brands are being asked to account for how they deliver not just what they deliver. The fast movers in this space have adopted transparency as proof of value not just proof of source. By highlighting what they do to keep things right, to eliminate exploitation and waste, they are looking to shift the affinity that customers have for their products from functional to emotional. That’s the future of loyalty right there potentially: brands that feel right because they do right. Reinforcing and activating the changes that consumers want to see in the world is a powerful way to build a bond.

5. Put Things Right. Crisis moments are an opportunity to show that your brand will do what is expected not just what is required. Trustworthy brands accept shortcomings readily, acknowledge quickly, move decisively and patiently rebuild the ground they have lost. Less credible brands shift, deny, downplay, hide behind excuses, create a scapegoat or play politics. In other words, as per Babbit’s analysis, they act in opaque ways. Their moves may get them out of the headlines but they fail to act as proving moments for the brand in the longer term.

6. Build Community. Increasingly, we build trust together. I love this wonderful observation from the good people at Protein: “a brand is not what you tell people it is, it’s what people tell each other it is.”  Today, consumers look to their peers and to the influencers they follow to guide them around who they should support. It follows that trustworthy brands should be building advocacy (and reputation) by encouraging those types of assemblies: getting out of the way and prompting people to come together and find points of interest and reasons to share and interact because of the brand.

7. Light The Way Forward. Trusted brands advocate for a future that people want to see happen, and, through innovation, acquisition and growth, they are seen to be actively pursuing that vision. Businesses that behave in this way are seen to be putting their brand where their future is. Their actions match their words—and the combination acts as powerful proof of intention.

8. Strive For Emotional Difference Not Just Competitive Difference. People are naturally drawn to things that make them feel better about themselves. We trust how we feel. In fact, we rely on those feelings, those instincts, to tell us what to keep in our lives and what to discard. It seems strange to me that, with all the talk about experiences today, too many brands continue to assess their value through their outputs rather than the outcomes. And the greatest outcome that every brand should be looking for, in my opinion, is an emotional response from customers that is distinct and more powerful than what everyone else looks to deliver.

Too many brands have no objective way of assessing how trusted or trustworthy they are. They rely on their Net Promoter Scores or they guess on the basis of impressions such as top line, media coverage or recurrent sales that seem to show people choosing to come back to them. That seems a somewhat arbitrary way of tracking something so important to the welfare and value of your brand. I prefer Nick Black’s ideas for assessing the degree to which your brand is perceived as one worth trusting:

  • Establish metrics that indicate the extent to which your brand is driving trust in the marketplace, and more particularly where it is not
  • Define what your brand needs to be most trusted for
  • Use every process and program you have to bolster those critical areas of trust

The Blake Project Can Help: Contact us for more on BrandInsistence brand equity measurement

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Mark Di Somma

Connect With Us