Why customer trust is more vital to brand survival than it's ever been

Authenticity is key to trust, so how do brands build this in a world of digital and social upheaval?

Customer trust is not only vital in an environment where customer expectations are increasing daily and competition is fierce, it is a brand differentiator that could make or break a business. You only have to look at the recent scandals around Facebook or the Australian Banks to see this happening.

Brand trust as an ‘insurance policy’ against future issues is not a new concept. Most organisations know trust bestowed by the consumer can not only make or break a business, it can also ensure you survive a problem in the future. But few achieve brand trust adequately, preferring to pay lip service rather than delve into what it really means: Authentically caring about customers and their needs.

Brand trust has more important than ever because today’s consumers are bombarded with options. What was often once a choice between two brands is now a global mix of hundreds, which has consumers asking who they know and trust before making a purchasing decision.

Director of brand agency Hulsbosch, Jaid Hulsbosch, says consumer trust creates loyalty and advocacy, traits that legitimise a brand. Good examples of those who’ve successfully marketed from a strong position of trust are Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aid line and oral hygiene conglomerate, Colgate.

The need to build brand trust has heightened thanks to the immediate effect of social media on our lives, spending choices and habits, he says. Consumers are much savvier about how a product is portrayed and where it’s marketed as a result.

“It’s a global, 24/7 world that maximises the offer of competition. But it can also be a confusing state of product and/or service credibility. Without trust, marketers are in fractured pursuit of customer engagement and customer loyalty,” Hulsbosch tells CMO. “Trusting a brand means you associate with the product and/or service. Brands become part of your identity and give you membership to a particular socio-economic group.”

One brand well aware of the impact of trust is Blackmores, which was awarded Australia’s Most Trusted Vitamin Brand 2018 by Reader’s Digest for the 10th year running. Speaking on behalf of the brand, McCrindle Research principal, Mark McCrindle, cites trust as a key thing in both life and society, and agrees it’s become a far more important currency for brands in the face of mobile devices and social influence.

“It’s not now just about price, feature and benefits, it’s not even about history and legacy, it is about trust,” he says. “Every brand must build and maintain trust, particularly because the customer is more sceptical and empowered, and not afraid to push back and question.”

How to create trust

The big question around trust is how best to create it. And the key is authenticity. Simply saying a brand is going to do something, without backing it up with actions, is a consumer disaster waiting to happen.

Hulsbosch says social media buzz and news coverage provide the impetus for consumers to search for more information and ‘voices’ of authority for a product or service. In this changed environment, digital platforms become powerful tools available to everyone.

But as McCrindle points out, a brand has to stand for something whatever the channel, and what it stands for it has to live by.

“Australians aren’t into anyone preaching at them, we’re good a pushing back at authority. So it’s not about brands talking up values, it is about them standing for something,” he says. “What is their point of difference? As an entity, what do they stand for, what is the reason for their existence? Then they need to live by what they posit. Whatever is inherent in the brand is what the public will hold it to.

“We hear a lot about companies being there for the profit of their shareholders, but for the majority of customers that rings hollow, as they are the ones handing over their money.”

Trust can be transferred across products by a brand, McCrindle continues, but there has to be coherency to the offering. “Brand extension only works when there’s a logical flow-on. If an organisation was to take advantage of its brand by putting it on something that doesn’t have the same plausibility, that’s when there’s pushback.”

Trust is the one thing that carries across all consumer generations, McCrindle says. “It’s universal, it’s the one feature that cuts through all aspects, generations and cultures, and it is the gold standard for organisations today.”

Qualtrics customer experience subject matter expert and principal consultant, Vicky Katsabaris, says glass box tactics are critical for brands today.

“It’s about being transparent, doing what is expected and shared values. Key to this is the internal culture of the brand becoming more evident,” she says. “The expectation is you deliver to those values with more purpose-driven activities so you are living and breathing the values.

“It’s not just for young people, all ages are buying into ethical brands. A more thoughtful process is going into buying, and people are being more mindful about the choices they are making.”

If you make a brand promise, the consumer has expectations around it, Fujitsu managing director, Philip Perham, says.

“It’s about delivering on what you say you’re going to give them, and every time, not just once,” he says. “We invested heavily in Fujitsu Assist to enhance our product, so our customers know we’re there to support them. For us, air conditioning is a 7-10 year lifecycle before it’s replaced, so we need to ensure that experience is the best it can possibly be, because we rely heavily on return customers and word-of-mouth.

“The customer at the heart of what we do, not the sale. The team are empowered to make the decisions they feel are right for customers. You can’t do any of this without empowering your employees. If they don’t believe in what they do, that experience chain is broken.”

Crucial in this process, according to Brandhook principal, Pip Stocks, is managing consumer expectations. If you are not meeting those expectations, learn from it.

“Trust is a big influence on loyalty, even up to 30 per cent of the influence. To build trust, you must be managing what you do and the customer’s expectation, and measuring how you deliver against those,” she says. “Customers can forgive what they perceive is a one-off mistake, but less so if you do it all the time. It’s also better to focus on the series of small things that lead to broken brand, because they lead to a lasting impression of your brand.

“You need value or principles that are going to guide the way you do things. That’s where trust can really help as a guiding principle. For example, ask how to remove bad profits from the business: Is what you are doing perceived to be fair and reasonable?

“Ground the organisation in values that are important and back that up. Don’t release a product to market if it doesn’t meet your standards - really make trust tangible for people. And measure it, because if you can’t measure it, you can’t hold yourself accountable.”

Gaining trust

So why is trust so hard to gain? As more data breaches and misuse of data hit the headlines, an already jaded customer is becoming even more so. As Hulsbosch points out, it is getting harder for consumers to ascertain what is real and what is not, what private information is protected and what is open or sold on to unknown parties. 

“Board and staff members need to adhere to these ethical standards as, in effect, they are the brand and only they can elicit consumer trust,” he says.

To do this, a corporation and its brand needs to be determined to demonstrate brand clarity of purpose and core values and be transparent with all policies and procedures.

As Uberbrand managing director, Dan Ratner explains, content and trust are related. “If brand is a perception held in someone’s mind, then perceptions are formed by the sum of all the experiences and impressions those people have from brands. So in these opportunities, you are creating moments of truth,” he says.

“If something breaks down in that process and its’ not dealt with well in a hypercompetitive world, you can damage the brn.”

McCrindle agrees scepticism has risen over recent years, with the latest examples of breaches of trust from banks and social media a public manifestation of the whole brand pushback when trust is not maintained.

“There used to be an acceptance that brands were there to meet the needs of customers and they had the power and customer had to accept what was put forward. Now, customers are global in their outlook, they know companies are there for profit, and have lived through examples of mistrust,” he says.

“So trust isn’t a given - it has to be earned. And if it’s breached, they are very quick to push back. There’s not the same kind of forgiveness that may have been there in the past.”

Kastabaris suggests trust feels like an older metric, and caring is now more apt. “Trust is not a word that often comes up with customers - they talk more about brands who show they care about the things we care about,” she says. “The reason for this is a cultural shift; it’s moved from trust to feeling like brands understand me through shared values.”

Breach of trust

As Hulsbosch points out, brands (like people), can sometimes slip-up and make mistakes. And as Facebook and the banks can currently attest, breaches of trust do happen.

Bouncing back is possible if brands have created enough consumer goodwill, demonstrated a willingness to fix a problem, and built a depth of belief in the product and service. In other words, good brand trust upfront means better weathering a storm.

“Create goodwill, deliver a product and service that resonates, deliver benefits that emotionally connect with consumers, and be a business that performs in an environmentally and ethically conscious way,” Hulsbosch advises. “Realign to the brand’s core values, and own up to mistakes. Also demonstrate a positive change to fix what’s broken and an ability to move on in the right way.”

Regaining trust does require a genuine apology and an acknowledgement of where a brand has gone wrong, and efforts to make up for these wrongs, McCrindle says. “If someone is fair dinkum, that grace is bestowed by consumers,” he says.

Katsabaris adds the apology has to be swift, genuine and be accompanied by some kind of compensation.

“Brand personality and responsibility is treating your customers like humans and thinking of them as people who have needs and wants, triggers and barriers,” she says. “If you can think about your customer as a person with a name and a family with issues and desires, you can deliver something more relevant to them.”

Up next: Future trends and the common pitfalls brands still aren't successfully navigating

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