Fifth Dimension CEO: The problem with brand trust metrics

Brands are always investing in 'trust' and sizing it up but it's usually not worth it, as Fifth Dimension research shows

Many brands set store by levels of customers’ trust but cracks are appearing in the value of measuring it.

That's the view of Fifth Dimension CEO, Lyndall Spooner, whose research consultancy is trying to dissuade clients from using trust scores. 

“Some of our clients are moving away from the trust metric and others are still wedded to it. It takes a very long time to change because you have to convince not only the marketer but also the CEO and sometimes the board," Spooner told CMO. "Trust has been a key performance metric and we’re treading a line between being respectful and trying to educate about what better metrics brands could be using."

Fifth Dimension’s clients include services companies in telecommunications and banking, plus household brands including Westpac, Coles, HCF, Telstra, Foxtel, Colgate and the Commonwealth Bank. 

While agreeing trust is still useful in measuring market presence, Spooner said there is no proof ‘trust’ is a predictor of consumer behaviour, nor that it results in customer conversion, let alone customers who stick loyally to the brand. The problems with trust surveys are rife, she said, because the word means different things to different people.

What's more, a question about trust that's unprompted or without context will often lead people to answer with the first brand that comes to mind. And without specific context, trust ratings don't tell you what scoring applies to, or what you as an organisation can do to improve things.

According to Spooner, companies also misunderstand the value and position of trust in the public mind and on the path to purchase. This is becoming increasingly problematic now shoppers do their research on the Internet where product features, benefits and value have significant weight in decision making. 

CX indicators

Hired by many companies to develop brand metrics, Fifth Dimension has been running experiments delving into the limitations of measuring and using brand trust ratings as measures of success. The first experiment was not designed to focus on brand trust but modelled the accuracy of eight customer experience (CX) metrics for predicting customer behaviour based on 5000 consumers’ responses and measured across various brands and industries. The metrics were brand trust, brand consideration, Net Promoter Scores (NPS), likelihood to stay a customer, customer satisfaction, suits customers’ needs, customer effort and meet customer expectations.

Spooner said these metrics can carry more or less weight depending on categories. For example, NPS is relevant to a category where sharing and recommendations are more relevant, such as for Foxtel.  

Overall, findings showed brand trust - made up of brand ‘character’ and the capability of a brand to deliver on its promise - was the worst predictor of customer behaviour. Asking about capability to fulfil a promise, or in terms of specific aspects of the offer, was the closest thing to measuring trust that proved useful. 

“There’s a fundamental flaw in asking consumers if they trust a brand… 60 per cent of people interpret trust as about the capability of a brand to deliver what it promises and the rest answer the question as if it is about character - meaning the ethics and honesty of the business,” Spooner said. 

Lyndall Spooner, CEO Fifth DimensionCredit: Fifth Dimension
Lyndall Spooner, CEO Fifth Dimension

The effects of respondents’ interpretations are huge. For example, people thinking of a brand’s character are 88 per cent more likely to distrust brands across industries, while people who think of a brand’s capability are 30 per cent more likely to express trust in a brand. 

“That’s when both groups have the same level of positive customer experiences with a brand," Spooner said. 

Further, Spooner said brand trust questions never measure trust of an individual brand. Responses are instead driven by a brand’s industry and are strongly influenced clusters of brands.

Another big influencer on responses is the fact some brands and industries, such as supermarkets or phone providers, frequently engage with customers, making recall quick and easy. 

“Just because I cannot recall a brand when asked a question does not mean I do not trust the brand. It means the brand is not salient and statistically less likely to be recalled. It is not statistically less likely to be trusted,” Spooner said. 

 “Suddenly, smaller brands in trusted industries gain just as much trust as the bigger brands in the same industry, yet they were not listed as trusted brands in the unprompted list. Additionally, brands in less trusted industries go down in the rankings together."

Factors driving trust indexes

If frequent engagement, big marketing budgets and therefore recall equate to a vote for ‘trust’, it should be no surprise supermarkets so often sit at the top of trust ratings, along with telecommunications companies and then often banks. The exception was in the immediate aftermath of the Royal Royal Commission into the Financial Services Industry.

In July, after more than a year of Covid, it was brands where consumers were still able to shop, including supermarkets, Bunnings and Kmart, that took five of Roy Morgan’s top 10 ‘most trusted’ places. 

“Even if we get people to rate brands on a trust scale, that’s unlikely to be a strong predictor of future sales. This is because consumer trust has shifted to technology and peers – and both influences introduce new brands to consumers,” Spooner said. 

Big companies that have built up familiar brand names and spent big on building presence and trust for years and years will be disappointed to hear Spooner believed most – unless they’re in a high-risk product category - have wasted their efforts in today's digital world. She argued the Internet has democratised trust and salience, while search engines removed the need for consumer to recalls brands.

Instead, Spooner claimed brands today start off fundamentally equal on trust. With some product categories such as car insurance or health products, where there’s a perceived high level of risk, that brand trust works toward a purchase and also retaining a customer.

"If a brand tells me it’s a bank or tells me it makes some widget, I believe it - until it fails to do what it said. It’s only when a brand loses trust that there’s a problem," she said. 

For Spooner, the digitally disrupted funnel means you don’t have a set consideration group, and brands with the biggest presence and voice are dramatically less likely to be winners because small brands are on equal footing for consumers.  

“The world doesn’t work like that traditional funnel any more because consumers don’t search the Internet on a brand that is top of mind, and often we don’t even search on a category. We search a question about the category, and brands, whether familiar or unheard of, all come up for consideration," Spooner continued. "Now we are so used to doing our research and always hearing of new products and new brands, familiarity and trust are mostly irrelevant."

In another experiment investigating brand choices, Fifth Dimension found 42 per cent of choices made across a range of products in banking, telecommunications and insurance were for brands that were never initially considered by the buyer. Instead, these were introduced during their path to purchase.  

“You can spend all the money you want trying to build your brand trust scores and getting respondents to answer a question on who they trust, but you are collecting useless information that has no relationship to your customer spend or potential future sales,” she said.

“The reality is that the brands you are going to lose to are not going to come up in the list of trusted brands because they are the smaller and more innovative brands you are failing to monitor."

Finding the right customer predictor

For those still deteremined to measure brand trust, Spooner advised at least asking the question in context.

"But even better, don’t measure brand trust, measure the attributes that will actually drive sales – unless of course you are in government and in that case make sure your actions prove you are worthy of the trust people placed in you," she said. 

Of the eight metrics Fifth Dimension researched, Spooner said a ‘suits needs’ metric is one of the most useful for predicting customer behaviour for most product categories.  

“If we think of that path to purchase today, I’m researching and shopping around online. I don’t need to know brands. I’m going to consider, to compare all the ones that come up. I’m going to trust them because they’ve come up and I’m going to ask ‘what are they giving me, what's the price and how does that compare to someone else?’” she said.

"All purchase decisions are very much going into detail on far more tangible elements of product and price because we can weigh up more brands, more offers, more easily than ever before. You don't just start with a small number of brands you have heard of.” 

Spooner also advised brands to concentrate on innovating their products and services, getting ahead of competitor products and marketing the benefits of their offer and how it suits more customer needs.  

“The way we are learning to shop and compare, it's good customer experience that’s making all this easier every day," she concluded. "I think of my kids – teenagers – who search for things so quickly so easily. How or where on Earth would brand trust come into any of the things that they do or care about?” 

You can also follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page 

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