10 Keys to a Trustworthy Brand (or “how to stop your company from sabotaging itself”)

By Todd Anthony, Founder, Head of Strategy

Yesterday, I got my oil changed at a place called “10 Minute Oil Change.” It took 30 minutes. Had they lived up to the basic promise in their name, they’d have had a customer for life. But the fact that they didn’t means that I’ll probably never go back. After all, how can I trust them? Who knows, maybe it’ll be 45 minutes next time.

Being in the brand communications field, I see a lot of companies that desperately want to be perceived as trustworthy while simultaneously sabotaging that perception with weasel tactics, myriad inconveniences, overpromises, crap service, and a dozen other bad habits. They tell us to make “trustworthiness” one of their brand personality or voice traits, and then they, for example, auto-renew annual customer subscriptions without explicitly telling anyone. Blech!

Maybe they don’t understand how trust actually works.

How does trust actually work in the marketplace?

Life teaches us to protect ourselves until we know that we can safely expose our vulnerabilities. We are constantly calculating the probability of companies taking advantage of us based on the circumstances, what’s at stake, and what we know about them. When we get new information about a company, it goes into the cerebral data file and is later used to calculate whether that company is likely to capitalize on our vulnerabilities.

In the case of the “10 Minute Oil Change” people, my calculation was fairly simple. I’d seen them around and knew that they were a chain, but I’d never used them. A sign on the building indicated that they used Penzoil, which I know to be a well-established, high quality brand of motor oil that my subconscious associated with NASCAR for some reason. And while I’d never been there before, I had sufficient confidence that if they put that very specific promise IN THEIR NAME they must be deeply committed to delivering on it. After all, I calculated, it would be highly imprudent for a business to name themselves after a promise they don’t deliver on. Okay, so they got my $49.56. But they’ll never get another dime.

I once placed my trust in Facebook and Twitter because I simply couldn’t see how they’d be taking advantage of me and I didn’t see all that much at stake. Now I know more about how exposed my personal information might be and am less sure about whether they have my best interests at heart. Therefore, I trust them less. In contrast, Apple’s recent refusal to unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone for the FBI, regardless of what I think of that move, actually made me trust them more.

Marketing gurus often talk about building relationships and developing strong emotional connections with consumers. But without first building and nurturing trust, you can’t even get to the starting line on that stuff.

1. Are you making it easy for prospects to predict your behavior?

The degree to which your behavior is predictable is linked to the level of trust. That means speaking as clearly and truthfully as possible in every situation. Be straight talking about what you offer and how you offer it. Any perceived deviation from what you say and do will hurt you. Don’t try to get away with things on a technicality, hide important details, or create convoluted systems or policies. Don’t be calculating or sly. Be completely open. This is a no brainer.

2. Are you staying true to what you deliver?

There’s that gap, that sometimes Grand-Canyon-sized gap, between what a company says it delivers and what it actually delivers. That gap kills trust. So too do the little inconvenient truths that companies fail to reveal at the outset. Yeah, they can get away with it. People might still do business with them. But every instance of that hurts their perceived trustworthiness score.

3. Do you have the customer’s best interest at heart in every situation?

If you are not constantly double-checking yourself against this question, your inherent profit-obsessed, ROI-centric self-interest will seep in to the way your business is projected out there. It just will. Is this question part of your corporate culture? If not, some form of it probably should be.

4. Does your brand exhibit personality characteristics associated with trustworthiness?

Let’s be clear, trustworthiness is not a personality trait. But your brand can behave in ways that make it seem more trustworthy. Here are some personality traits that are associated with trust: honest, friendly, agreeable, relaxed, comfortable.

5. Are you giving them things for free?

Trust is often built around an exchange. So start the exchanging before the actual purchase by giving prospects something valuable for nothing. No strings attached.

6. Are you making yourself appear vulnerable?

Acknowledging your own vulnerabilities is a way to engender trust because it shows that you trust your audience with certain knowledge that may appear inconvenient for you. For example:  

·      Hey were in beta right now, so we’re still learning what works and what doesn’t

·      We made an error…

·      We completely underestimated the demand for…

·      As we learn and grow, we will continue to add new features our customers crave

Being vulnerable also makes you more intriguing as a brand and can help you stand out from your competitors. So there’s that.

7. Are you backing up your claims with verifiable facts?

In the hierarchy of data, a company’s assertions about itself are very low quality. If my cerebral data file for a company consists entirely of information they’ve provided, then my level of trust in that company will be low. However, if those assertions are supported by facts, it strengthens that data. Don’t try to fudge this. In fact, the easier it is for them to verify your factual statements the better. When we develop Brand Messaging for clients, we try to include a repository of factual claims (usually the kind with real numbers and verifiable sources).

8. Are you engaging your audience with stories?

Recent research indicates that when people hear stories, their brains release a neuropeptide called oxytocin (source: Harvard Business Review, 2014). Oxytocin affects an individual’s willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions (source: Nature.com, 2005). In other words, it helps foster a sense of wellbeing, empathy, and yeah, trust.

9. Does your brand emote?

Are you funny? Do you post emotional videos that give people the “feelies”? Are you projecting a tangible humanity? These are among the behaviors that are known to help with the release of oxytocin – the neurochemical I mentioned earlier.

10. Are you highly responsive?

Being highly responsive will contribute to the prospect’s sense that you are worthy of their trust. If they have questions, respond quicker than they might expect.

Companies are always looking for shortcuts to eek a few more cents out of a situation. Often times this knob-turning monkey mentality leads to business practices that erode trust. On the other side, a true devotion to building trust establishes a stronger foundation that really helps a company grow.  

Trust is like paper. Once crumpled, it can never be put right again.

Just ask Volkswagen.

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Let’s set up a call. We’ll listen carefully and offer our honest perspective.