Brands, Trust, Choice: From One-Way to Two-Way Street


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Brands have always been about trust and choice. Brand versus non-brand or rival brand propositions have always come down to “You (consumer) know me (product). You want to know what you are buying. You know you like me. So you buy certainty,” versus “You (consumer) don’t know me (unbranded or different branded product). You don’t like uncertainty, so you don’t buy me- unless I make it so affordable it is worth your risk.”

Consumers who want a consistent brand experience will go for the brand they know. Or, as the economist Kjell Nordstrom mischievously puts it, “When you see the Golden Arches, you pull in there because you know exactly the level of disappointment you will feel halfway through that burger.”

But, have you noticed the big, big change in how trust and brands work in recent years? A second lane has been built into the trust highway. And it travels the other way.

The new Trust proposition

A few years ago, Consumer Reports tested fifty three different kitchen ranges spanning price points from $400 to $5,200. They concluded that forty seven of these fell into the ‘very good’ category’. The same is true for most consumer products; cars, TV’s, even coffee shops. The fact is that today consumers generally have to be unlucky to buy a dud product or experience terrible service.

This leveling of the playing field has given rise to what Barry Schwartz calls The Paradox of Choice . In his book of that name he offers the view that in a world of infinite choice the consumer becomes dis-empowered; We have all had that experience of shopping for something and, confronted with the vast array of choice, have put the expedition into the “too difficult” category and retreated to the nearest Starbucks.

With a surplus of products, and consumers able and willing to experiment if only they can navigate through the maze, “You know me” is no longer a strong enough trust proposition to keep consumers choosing a brand. Smart brand owners have begun to supplement it with a new proposition – “Trust me not just because you know me, but because I (the brand) know you (the consumer) and I can make your life easier by giving you the best reason to buy”. The era of the ‘curator’ brand is here. Some brands will learn so much about us that they will offer ‘goldilocks’ products- those that are just right for us.

A good example of this is Amazon, with its “If you liked that, you might also like this” product push technology, of course. Amazon gets to know customers from their past purchases, but also based on the buying patterns of those who bought the product you are buying at the particular moment of the interaction. Hence the “Customers who bought this also bought…” buying prompts.

It was American Express, decades ago, that pioneered the identification of buying segments – look at groups that bought a particular product, spot a second product that a number of them bought, then you can sell that product to the rest of the group, knowing the acceptance rate will be higher than average.

It’s ‘buyergraphics’ if you like, as opposed to demographics. Now, and a few other brands have taken this further, turning closed analytical dissection of groups of customers, practised behind closed doors, into open, explicit, brand communities – ‘people like you said this about the hotel’. The glossy holiday brochure may get the hotel or resort on our short list but it will be brands like and other consumers that will help us make the final decision.

Less Choice please

In a world of infinite choice we seek simplicity and someone to help us navigate through the mass of products on offer. Research shows consistently that people increasingly trust other people rather than suppliers. In other words, they trust other consumers over brand owners. So, smart brands harness the voice of other consumers, acquiring that extra layer of trust.

It’s a ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ kind of interaction, if you will. Amazon is simply playing back to the consumer the buying patterns of like-minded consumers, aggregating them with technology to find patterns and presenting those patterns to you, stripping your choices down to ones you are likely to like.

Apple’s iTunes, with its ‘Genius’ function that selects songs for you based on your existing playlist, does something similar. More recently LastFM, spotify and Pandora are emerging brands that create brand communities by presenting music to suit the tastes of the listener, and even introducing them to others with similar tastes.

Brands as Trusted Advisors

Some brands go further than automation, bringing brand communities together to coalesce as what social dynamics experts call ‘a community of interest’ or, in other words, a brand community. Nespresso has a ‘coffee club’ that helps you manage the ‘coffee’ side of your life at home, for coffee lovers, for example. Just as iTunes’ Genius function becomes the curator of your music library, trawling thousands of items in its music store to bring you things you might like, Nespresso ‘s coffee club becomes your trusted coffee connoisseur friend, updating you on new ‘grand crus’ of coffee (like a wine club) and educating your coffee palate.

Harley Davidson famously used its Harley Owners Group (HOG) to drive the brand with a real sense of brand community, in which the bike makers as well as the bike owners were likely to be Harley riders. The HOG (Harley Owners Group) brings together suppliers and customers, who ride together, adding another layer of trust to the equation.

Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice-Why More is Less, taught us how the current age of ultra choice means the brand proposition has to move on and move on fast, as old notions of “Choose me, you know me” are no longer enough. The smartest brands have now morphed their products (Nespresso coffee machines, as we’ve seen above, for example) into a branded experience (the Nespresso Coffee Club, which happens to centre on machine owners, but exists to sell you the coffee ‘pods’ to go in the machines).

A curator, caretaker, concierge, friend whose advice is trusted and followed, based on the brand’s knowledge of what the consumer might like; this is what the smart brand owners are transforming their brand experience into. Are you?

Shaun Smith
Shaun Smith is the founder of Smith+Co the leading UK based Customer Experience consultancy. Shaun speaks and consults internationally on the subject of the brand purpose and customer experience. Shaun's latest book 'On Purpose- delivering a branded customer experience people love' was co-written with Andy Milligan.


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