“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”
—Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Trust is the Holy Grail for brands. They fall over themselves to be the ones you trust, for all your fill-in-the-blank needs. This is especially true in the world of B2B, where business tends to be more about relationships than transactions. And while trust has always been part of the fabric of brands, we’re now seeing this on a whole new level. Why? To summarize this Forbes article, it’s an increasingly complex world where people trust institutions less and less, and brands are filling some of the gaps.

It’s also because people today have more multilayered relationships with companies, often touching on heavy subjects like privacy, security, access, ownership, social issues, and ethics. Brands need to demonstrate trust in areas they never had to consider before.

If your job involves shaping, launching, or managing a brand, it can be tempting to talk about trust in your brand communications. But here’s the rub: You can’t sell trust with words. The harder you try, the less likely it is to succeed.

That’s because trust isn’t a brand message, it’s a goal.

So, if building brand trust is something that keeps you up at night, it’s likely for one of two reasons:

  1. The company (or offering) is falling short somewhere, or
  2. The company is doing the right things but it’s not coming across.

It all begins with one difficult question:

Is your brand trustworthy?

This is awkward. “Of course my brand is trustworthy”, we say to ourselves, “because we’re good, honest people who are great at what we do.”

But trustworthy means so many things, on so many fronts. For some, it conveys an ethical company, for others, a reliable product. It requires some specifics to back up, and consistency over time. And it’s always a work in progress.

The key is not to say “trust me”, but to demonstrate trustworthiness.

When thinking of your own brand, how would you answer these questions:

  •   Do our customers feel we’re trustworthy (our offering and company)? Do we do right by them? How do we know? Do they tell us, share reviews, rate us?
  •   How does our product perform vs. expectations (the experience and results)? Any strengths we can leverage? Any hiccups to improve upon?
  •   How’s our corporate behavior? Do we have clear strategic priorities and a plan to address and communicate them? Are we following through?
  •   How are we living our company values? Do we have tangible plans around things like community, sustainability, diversity, transparency, and accountability?
  •   How do our actions compare to competitors? Are we all doing the same thing? What’s table stakes? Are we creating impact or just noise? 

If you want to increase brand trust, first answer these questions to identify where your assets and liabilities are. Does your brand do something good? Weave it into your marketing and communications (more on that below). Got a trust weak spot? Get people on it immediately – it’s a hole in your ship and you’re taking on water.

Brand trust doesn’t live in marketing

Now, if you’re the brand leader at your organization, here’s the tricky part: All those questions impact you but you shouldn’t be owning any of them. These are business issues that live with the C-Suite, not strictly the CMO.

A strong brand reflects the business and leverages its best features. You can’t paper over problem areas with marketing dollars and clever messaging – again, notably businesses that subsist on long-term relationships and referrals.

So, stop beating your head against a wall. Issues with product performance or customer satisfaction or corporate ethics can’t be in your silo. Building trust only comes to Marketing once it’s been proven in the market. So, kick this up to the C-Suite and jumpstart the real business changes.

For example, let’s say a new product doesn’t consistently perform as promised; as a result, strong early sales were stained by a few negative customer reviews. People are asking how you plan to handle this (after all, customer engagement is part of your job) but most of this problem is completely outside your control. You want to partner with your peers leading Product, R&D, and Sales (maybe even CSR if it’s bad enough) to tackle this. And whether the solution involves improving products or recalibrating expectations, it’ll take close collaboration (and transparency, and probably some humility) to make it happen.

Note: In an example like this one, resist the pressure to simply flood out bad reviews by incentivizing good ones. Beyond ethical concerns, that sort of surface-level solution is strategically flawed. It may address short-term symptoms, but often backfires and hurts efforts to build lasting brand trust.

If a brand isn’t trusted because the product or company is falling short somewhere, it shouldn’t go to Marketing quite yet. Step back, address the problem, then come back to messaging once everyone’s on the same page.

Communicating trust without saying it

Let’s say your brand is doing all the right things, or at least enough that you can start sharing it to improve genuine brand trust. That’s great! Now what?

As a brand leader, this is the part of building trust that is in your jurisdiction. But how do you let people know, without diminishing that hard-earned trust in the process? If you can’t say “trust us” (and you can’t), what can you say?

Some advice and tactics to consider:

1. Collect trustworthy endorsements
Inventory any relevant recognition and awards, certifications, regulation compliance, and relationships with respected parties (trade media, impartial influencers, etc.). If your industry has a go-to 3rd party ranking platform, see how you rank and encourage people to rate you there. Formalize a referral process with your best partners. And, of course, gather and showcase happy customer testimonials; just don’t solicit reviews or social sharing too hard (e.g., over-direction or compensation) or they lose the authenticity that gave them value in the first place.

Trust tactic
Your employees may be your most valuable brand ambassadors. Do they think highly of your company and believe in it? Do they trust you to do right by customers, employees, and society at large? Encourage them to share that with friends, family, and peers at other companies. People are more likely to trust a brand that treats its employees well, but only if they know about it.

2. Be uncomfortably transparent
Share how you’re performing on key metrics – not just with shareholders but also with customers, employees, and, if you’re feeling bold, the public. State goals that matter to you and take actions that make steady, incremental progress; share results even (especially!) when they’re not entirely favorable. The purpose isn’t to brag, it’s to show humility and a sincere desire to improve. And, by putting it all out there, you trust people to have all the unfiltered information and to draw their own conclusions.

Trust tactic
Start small. Identify three areas where you can share more with a select audience. For clients, one Forrester study showed the “three most important qualities a B2B brand should possess – clear full pricing, a visible inventory, and content about company processes – all relate to transparency.” Employees may care about other areas (like around hiring and promotion, DE&I, and charitable giving) and appreciate it when their company shares progress against goals over time; it demonstrates their employer takes these priorities seriously and is willing to admit there’s a long way to go.

3. Facilitate trust between others
As people increasingly transact with those they don’t know, building trust between strangers only becomes more important. Sometimes this happens on a limited scale, like when you serve as a job reference or write a product review. Other times, it’s a core part of a brand’s value proposition or even business model – like when Google runs a full ad campaign about security, or how TransUnion shifted its positioning from a credit bureau to an enabler of trust between consumers and businesses. In these cases, you’re not saying “trust me” but rather “we help people trust each other”. And who can’t get behind that?

Trust tactic
Offer sincere, public praise for a competitor, notably one that is in your market or community. No harm in calling out something they do right, and it reflects well on your own integrity. Like a waiter who recommends a cheaper bottle of wine, it establishes you’re willing to do what’s best for the customer even to your own detriment, which then strengthens trust for more meaningful interactions down the line. Keeping your competitors on their toes is a bonus.

If trust is a goal, how do you measure it?

It’s one thing to say trust is important. But if it’s to become a part of strategy, there needs to be a way of measuring it – especially if you need to eventually put money and resources against it.

So, how to measure brand trust? It’s inextricably linked to concepts like customer satisfaction and employee retention rates, so many brands look at some combination of customer reviews, employee reviews, and 3rd party rankings.

Others take a more holistic approach. For example, Edelman has been studying this for decades and created the Trust Barometer to gauge values and trends at an industry-wide level. As they put it, “Trust defines an organization’s license to operate, lead, and succeed. Trust is the foundation that allows an organization to take responsible risk, and, if it makes mistakes, to rebound from them.”

Of course, there’s no standardized way to evaluate trust. You need to define the metrics for your own organizations, an exercise that again requires collaboration and buy-in from the full C-Suite.

Brand trust is essential, tangibly valuable, and not getting any less important. So, it’s your job to strengthen and grow trust in your brand, ask the hard questions about just how trustworthy your brand really is, and communicate carefully to leverage your strengths while addressing your weaknesses.

Don’t just take my word for it.

“Trust everybody, but cut the cards.”
—Finley Peter Dunne

Cover image source: Jon Tyson