Customers Don’t Trust Companies (And That’s a Huge Opportunity)


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A year ago I moved from London to San Francisco. I arrived feeling optimistic. Consumer confidence was rising. The global economy was recovering. I felt in control – where I shop, how I shop, and who I shop from.

But some historic events happened en route to the Bay Area: Brexit and the U.S. election. That optimism steadily gave way to suspicion and scepticism (or is that, skepticism?). The underlying question became: Who can I trust?

I’m not alone in feeling this way. I work as a managing director at a customer agency that speaks and listens to thousands of consumers across the world and the U.S. Every day, we see firsthand that people are growing wary of “power” and are losing trust – in the government, in the media, in each other, and in companies. New stories everyday about data breaches, corporate scandals, and Tweets decrying FAKE NEWS! only serve to fuel the suspicion.

The net effects are backlashes and, sometimes, boycotts. Look at Uber, for example. It’s now dealing with the fallout on a range of trust issues that has put the company on the defensive and competitors within striking distance. It’s not surprising that, just as #DeleteUber started to trend, Lyft, Uber’s main competitor, announced a $1 million donation to the ACLU.

Whether they like it or not, companies are caught in the crosshairs, or, minimally, are getting swept up in the zeitgeist. In an America that has amplified people’s attitudes towards the companies they buy from, rebuilding consumer trust is more important now than ever.

It’s also a unique opportunity for companies; it’s a chance for them to stand for something, and to build new relationships as they rebuild trust. Companies might be in a better position to do that than many realize. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, worldwide, trust in the four institutions of business, government, media, and NGOs (collectively referred to as “the system”) has decreased since 2016. However, among the 1 in 3 globally who are uncertain of the system, business is seen as the only institution that can make a difference; 58% say they trust business the most. And, focusing just on the United States, trust in business is up from 51% in 2016 to 58% in 2017.

Trusted brands have always driven consumer aspiration. The current climate has strengthened people’s focus on the brands they believe they can trust. Consumers are advocating, with renewed passion, for the values that matter most to them.

That aspiration is a driver of growth. Brands can be symbols of trust and have an opportunity to use that status to their advantage, but only if they follow three rules.

Be Simple

Consumers do not like being confused or misled. They expect brands to be transparent, fair, and not to rip them off or insult them with hyperbolic statements. Confusing messaging will cause them to devalue a product or service, if not disregard it completely.

For these reasons, companies should communicate value by keeping things clear and simple. I mean everything: marketing, products, experiences, the whole lot. Simplicity for a brand means delivering clear and meaningful benefits that are connected to customers’ lives. Bring them a moment of happiness and you are on your way to instilling trust.

One brand that threads simplicity through everything it is and does – in marketing, positioning, even its value proposition – is Dollar Shave Club: $1 per blade, every week, delivered right to your doorstep. Open the box and there’s a quote and an attribution: “‘I like shaving with a dull razor.’ -No one. Ever.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Dollar Shave Club’s value proposition is totally based around a basic consumer need – shaving, at a decent price – and it has revolutionized the shaving category. It’s also a huge financial success; the company was acquired by Unilever in 2016 for $1 billion.

Be Human

In a world becoming ever more digitized, a company that treats its customers with humanity stands out. At its essence, a “humanized” brand is one that is obsessed with what people need and then gives it to them. To do this right, a brand has to start with the customer’s perspective and embrace the customer as an actual person with emotions and complexities, fears and joys, motivations, and perspectives. Airbnb recognized that some travelers felt that hotels didn’t give them a local experience just as Shake Shack saw that fast food chains weren’t catering to self-identified foodies.

Be Authentic

Brands can build trust by staying true to their mission, their story, and their personality. Tesla Motors, for instance, is all about authenticity. Its mission is clear, its story is powerful, and Tesla is widely popular with young consumers – many of whom have never driven a Tesla car at all. At Southwest Airlines, flight attendants frequently crack jokes over the intercom. At worst, it may cause a few hundred passengers to cringe. At best, it becomes a viral video that makes a few million people laugh.

In this highly uncertain, overtly political, social media-fueled moment, some companies are getting themselves in trouble. Others are searching for a grand strategy to make sense of the new order. But the companies that maintain or regain trust won’t do so with some grand theory of politics. They’ll do it through relationships with customers.

Ben Wiseman
C Space Managing Director. Passionate advocate of more human, commercial and engaging business strategy. Restless innovator. Former chocolate maker, children's counselor and classical tenor. London-born, San Francisco-dwelling husband, and father of two boys, one puppy and 5 chickens.


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