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Brand Trust Is Both a ‘What’ and a ‘Why’

Even new players can earn consumer trust right out of the gate, writes Leo Burnett VP, Strategy Director Eric Holubow

If you’ve ever heard someone say “trust me” you probably began thinking the opposite. Trust operates kind of like a Chinese finger trap; the harder someone pulls at it, the less progress they make. Trust is not something that can be claimed—it must be earned.

Traditionally, brands have earned trust using proxies. They appeal to our rational faculties by using big numbers, like years in service or size of their customer base, to prove their worth. Or they tap into our bias toward authority figures, parading white-coated experts or well-known endorsers to serve as surrogates.

Today, modern brands are rapidly earning trust, even un-seating established players, without using these conventional methods, often because they lack the resources or simply don’t have the heritage. Perhaps most impressive, many of the fastest-growing companies have been able to garner trust operating business models that are entirely reliant on radical notions of consumer trust. Airbnb wouldn’t be in business if people didn’t feel comfortable renting out their home to complete strangers. Uber and Lyft wouldn’t be successful if people didn’t feel more inclined to trust sitting in the back seat of a stranger’s car than hailing a taxi cab.

Much of the success of modern brands can be understood using the infuriatingly simple Brand Trust Scale. It proposes that a brand’s trust is influenced by two dimensions: its reliability and its intentions.

A brand’s reliability is how well they perform the job at hand. People hire or fire brands based on their competencies. If the eco-friendly detergent made of all natural ingredients fails to get the stain out of my shirt, I may start exploring alternatives.

Secondly, brands engender trust when their intentions (as communicated through their actions) align with their consumers’ best interests. Do I worry if my money is best kept at the bank that is being sued over opening up fake accounts in other customers’ names? 

Reliability is what they do for people and their intentions is why they do it.

When your worldview on trust is dialed into this frequency, it becomes clearer why these modern brands have thrived. Companies like Uber and Airbnb have successfully disrupted their respective categories by handling the duties of the category exceptionally well. Not only can Uber quickly find me a ride, but they have drivers come to me—and let me pay without ever pulling out my wallet. Airbnb satisfies my urge to have an authentic, yet off-the-beaten-path travel experience by having me stay at a local’s home. Because as many established hospitality companies have come to understand, experiences beat experience.

In categories where several brands have commensurate offerings, their intentions can be a real differentiator. TOMS erupted on the scene by demonstrating its altruism not through a traditional corporate social responsibility program, but by embedding its charitable sensibilities in every transaction. And people aren’t ditching Thin Mints in favor of the more affordable, accessible and, well … equivalent Grasshoppers, even though they are made in the very same factory. People like knowing that their purchase supports the Girl Scouts of America.

Why brands do what they do is at the heart of their intentions and is something that should be guided and informed by a brand’s formalized purpose.

I consider a brand’s purpose to be the higher-order operating system through which a brand makes decisions. And when those decisions become actions, they get expressed to consumers, employees and those in between as a brand’s intentions. A brand’s purpose gets understood by the intentions they express through their actions. The foundation of brand trust is built on top of the solid bedrock of a clear and selfless brand purpose.

It’s been said by Simon Sinek that “people don’t buy what you do, but why you do it.” This is true, but maybe unnecessarily mutually exclusive. Trust is built on the what and the why. At Leo Burnett, we embrace the power that a clear brand purpose can have in unleashing a brand’s prosperity. We also recognize the fundamental duty brands have in satisfying the essential needs of consumers—and believe brands can do more to over-deliver on the experiences consumers really hire them for. Brands that do well at delivering an unparalleled experience, but do so with questionable intentions stumble, like Uber. Whereas those that do both exceptionally well thrive at establishing their trustworthiness, like Airbnb. The key is having both. Trust me.

Eric Holubow - Headshot

Eric Holubow is VP, strategy director at Leo Burnett.