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Trust in a Time of Crisis

Since the beginning of the year we have been doing a bit of thinking around Trust.

We thought that was interesting – and then Coronavirus happened and we think it got really interesting!

Back in January we decided to investigate how trust is a foundational pillar to business, how it is changing and identified 10 key trust-building behaviours, before recently asking what trust looks like during a global pandemic.

“We trust that companies will take care to make sure the food we eat is healthy and not spoiled. We trust the babysitter we hire will take good care of our children. We trust that the neighbor isn’t going to steal our mail, break into our house, or kill the dog. A society without trust isn’t society: it’s a collection of people who are continually afraid of each other.”

Brands originated as symbols of trust, also known as ‘Trustmarks’. It was a guarantee that the product, or service, carrying the brand label would consistently deliver the quality promised by the reputation it had built (Yacob, 2015). As such, in the late 1800s a brand was a promise, a bag of branded flour promised to be flour and not sawdust. Since then, brands grew on trust and brands learned that investing in advertising – particularly expensive, fame-driving advertising – was an effective means of signalling trustworthy status. It created what Rory Sutherland terms, “reputational skin in the game which acts as a commitment device and creates trust.” The more a brand is perceived to invest in its reputation, the more it has to lose from under-delivering. (Sutherland, n.d)

Trust is made up of 3 core qualities or elements:

  1. Competence: You have the ability to do what you say you will do

  2. Dependability: you can be relied upon to do what you say you will do

  3. Integrity:what you do will be fair and just.

But trust itself is becoming a rare commodity.

“Marketing is increasingly cheap. Trust is increasingly expensive. It used to be hard to get your name in front of crowds. Getting tens of thousands of people to see you took some combination of luck, connections, or deep pockets. And since few people caught the crowd’s attention, crowds had a lot of attention to offer when you did. That’s no longer the case. Spam, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Google Ads have drastically reduced the cost of getting noticed, sometimes to zero. Attracting eyeballs no longer sets you apart. Building trust among those who have their eyes on you, does. Getting people’s attention is no longer a skill. Keeping people’s attention is. As a business, keeping people’s attention requires a combination of being transparent in what your product is and how it’s made, open about your mistakes, and, above all, putting the majority of your effort into the quality of your product, rather than the volume of your marketing.” Morgan Hossel

In fact, trust is in crisis.

Media fragmentation has been bad for universal trust: “We had a centralized media system—all got our news from the same source. In the 80s we got cable television & then the Internet & now social media, which all spectacularly fragment information sources & devastate trust in mainstream information sources, institutions & each other.” Prof Galloway, Apr 2019

But aside from this, consumer trust has been rapidly declining, driven by corporate scandals and shady business activity such as the VW diesel emissions scandal, UBER losing its license (and buying it back time after time) and Sir Philip Green pilfering the BHS pension fund. People don’t know who to trust anymore. In fact, research from Edelmen shows that consumer trust is in decline in almost every sector. Furthermore, political discourse is swirling with falsehood, trust in government declining (especially amongst the bottom 20% of earners). Trust in brands is at an all time low, and Edelmen also shows how following ‘fake news’ and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, trust in the media and platforms has plummeted.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Brand trust can save the world…

A majority of us now place more faith in brands to change the world rather than traditional social institutions. In fact, 69% of consumers feel that brands should serve as their conduit for societal change and 53% of consumers believe that brands can do more to solve social problems than governments. (Edelman Trust Barometer 2019)

(this point on brands over government is particularly poignant in western cultures- as during crisis you see the impact of Big government come more to the fore- the state taking greater control of more elements of society and welfare, meaning perhaps the ability to act or fight for the small guy is likely to be more in the hands of trusted brands?)

Furthermore, just because trust isn’t where it used to be, doesn’t mean this is the age of distrust:

There’s plenty of trust out there. It just isn’t where it used to be. Trust, the glue that holds society together, has shifted from institutional trust to a new form of distributed trust. Instead of flowing upwards to institutions, experts, authorities and regulators, it now flows horizontally to peers, friends, colleagues and fellow users. The signs of distributed trust are everywhere: from the rise of tech platforms such as Airbnb, Tinder and Uber that depend on strangers trusting one another; to the emergence of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum that bypass traditional banks; to rating and review systems on Amazon and Tripadvisor; to the feverish consumption of news on Facebook and other social media platforms. Rachel Botsman

In fact, today people are more trusting than ever: we get into cars with strangers (Uber), invite unknown families into our homes (AirBnB) and book holidays based on the recommendation of a person (or bot) whom we have never met (TripAdvisor). These businesses are, of course, brands in their own right but the social proof baked into the networked communities are critical to their success. Our growing ease with trusting strangers is creating people-powered market places and is directly responsible for the growth of the Sharing Economy, estimated to be worth £140 billion by 2025 (PWC, 2016).

In light of this, we can see that how trust is fostered by individuals has evolved along three distinct axis:

  1. Trust is Distributed:

“Instead of flowing upwards to institutions, experts, authorities and regulators, trust now flows horizontally to peers, friends, colleagues and fellow users. The signs of distributed trust are everywhere: from the rise of tech platforms such as Airbnb, Tinder and Uber that depend on strangers trusting one another; to the emergence of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum that bypass traditional banks; to rating and review systems on Amazon and Tripadvisor; to the feverish consumption of news on Facebook and other social media platforms.”

Rachel Botsman, Who do you Trust? 2018

  1. Trust is Tribal:

“The rise in fake news and an increasingly polarised political climate has given rise to a post-truth disease that’s come to be known as “tribal epistemology”, in which the truth or falsity of a statement depends on whether the person making it is deemed one of us or one of them. According to the writer David Roberts, “information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. ‘Good for our side’ and ‘true’ begin to blur into one.” The Atlantic, 2017

  1. Trust is Digital:

“Millennials build trust differently from the preceding generation of Baby Boomers. Baby Boomers acquired trust through personal encounters — by meeting somebody face-to-face, looking them in the eye, and shaking their hand. Millennials are different. They’ve grown up with a world of information at their fingertips. As a result, millennials are the first generation to acquire trust digitally. They build trust through virtual interactions and through social media. Their interactions with companies go beyond buying products. They want to establish an emotional connection with their favorite companies and consume their content. “ Morgan Housel 2018

It is therefore essential to build trust differently in this internet age. Having analysed brands in the business of building trust, we have identified 12 key trust-building behaviours around 4 themes:


  1. Innovation

  2. Data


  1. Quality

  2. Confidence

  3. Values

  4. Authentic


  1. Be Human

  2. Influence

  3. Educate


  1. Service & Sacrifice

  2. Customers

  3. Community

1. Trust through Innovation: Technology is rewiring our notions of trust, and the effect is nothing short of a revolution.

Trust can be delivered through innovation in two ways. The first is with the creation of new, innovative platforms to distribute trust. These can range from the massive (UBER, AirBnB, Lyft, Urbansitter, BlaBlaCar), to smaller, local trust building platforms (Neighbourly, Playpen, Nextdoor) and trusted review platforms (TripAdsvisor, TrustPilot, Thing testing). Secondly, new businesses are being built for trust, with innovation at the core. Examples include FinTech bank Monzo’s innovative app based service, Bumble, the dating app where women call the shots and Beauty Pie, a subscription beauty service that takes products directly to consumers without the exorbitant price tag.

2. Trust through Data: Data is a double-edged sword for brands in the business of building trust, powering personalisation and trust-building through customisation, yet threatening to ruin the reputations of brands that get it wrong.

For digitally native brands, data is king. Consumer demand and trust in direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands are driving their proliferation. If a brand knows a customer more intimately and authentically, a customer is more inclined to trust that brand — and that’s part of the secret sauce for DTCs. Therefore, trust can be built by using data to know your customers and personalising your service to them. This is evidenced by brands such as Stitch Fix who boast 3.2m shoppers annually, or Prose (custom hair care) who start the customer journey with a quiz that acts as an online product consultation. However, most importantly when considering data and trust, brands need to consider tight data ethics. Since 2016, trust in Facebook is down 66% and Elizabeth Warren (US Senator) named Facebook a “disinformation-for-profit-machine”. On the other hand, Netflix was named 2019’s most reputable company, and famously only uses data to inform commissioning.

3. Establish Quality: Perceptions of quality play a significant role in how and what we trust. But perceptions of quality don’t always correlate with actual quality – and communications can influence perceptions.

There are four ways to drive perceptions of quality. The first is price, charging a fee or a premium for your brand will instantly position it as of a higher quality - consumers believe that ‘you get what you pay for’. Secondly, having an element of exclusivity drives the thought that if a product is hard to get, it must be good. An example of this is Monzo, where every new customer had to be referred by an existing customer, or join a lengthy waitlist to sign up. Thirdly, guarantees build trust through quality. John Lewis ‘Never knowingly undersold’ is the most comprehensive price promise on the market. John Lewis say “it’s at the heart of everything we do. It's a big part of the trust in the brand and it means a lot to our customers. It's not going anywhere”. Finally, perceptions of quality can be grown through having a specialism, or doing just one thing well. Casper began by selling what they thought was a perfect bed, Bonobos started with one pair of men’s trousers and Harry’s started with one type of razor. With so many options available on a site like Amazon, selling just one is a prestige move that establishes that ‘no alternatives will do’. Quality can also be communicated through advertising, whether it is Stella Artois’ ‘Reassuringly expensive’, McDonald’s quality orientated messaging that set the record straight on food quality or Apple’s ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign.

4. Act with Confidence: “To ensure brand trust, for customers and clients, we should never underestimate the value of a public statement, publicly made, and officially approved and audited by a third party.” Charles Vallance , Campaign 2017.

Confidence can be communicated in two ways. Firstly, ‘signalling’. This includes store design, premium positioning (a great example is Apple) , premium channels and formats, high production values, expensive deals with celebrities & influencers and constant content creation. These behaviours all signal confidence. However, they are costly and brands can quickly burn budgets with this approach. The second way to build confidence is through trial and sampling. Examples of this include Netflix’s 1st episode free for The Crown, Peloton’s 30 day home trial and The Wall Street Journal lifting the paywall for a weekend. This approach shows consumers that a brand is willing to let people try their product for free, as they have so much confidence that people will love it enough to pay.

5. Lead with Values: Shared values build trust. More and more people are buying on values. People gravitate toward buying products and services from companies that have a purpose and share their personal values and beliefs.

Living and staying true to a brand’s purpose in a way that connects with consumers is an increasingly effective way to build trust. Dove’s campaign for ‘real beauty’ is the grand-daddy of brand purpose - iconic and enduring. Other examples include Starbuck’s plan to hire 10,000 immigrant over five years in direct response to President Trump’s travel ban or Nike’s Kaepernick campaign which followed decades championing athletes, equality and social justice.

These values need to live at every level of an organisation, and a glossy ‘purpose’ campaign will not be enough. Brands need to practice what they preach. On the one hand, Patagonia practices ethical sustainability at every level, so that every employee understands what the brand stands for - including on the factory floor. On the other hand, “Fearless Girl,” the statue of a defiant girl placed to face down the Wall Street bull statue, was quickly lauded as a powerful example of a societal stance. But almost as quickly, the company behind it, State Street Global Advisors, came under fire for systemic issues of gender pay equity and a lack of female executives. This demonstrates that merely making a statement is not enough.

6. Be honest, be real, be authentic: “Transparency is the new black, the new cool” @MarciaKilgore, Beauty Pie.

Transparency builds trust, as it proves to customers that they are not being ‘duped’. For Beauty Pie, transparency is about pricing: “You could be paying £100 for something that costs £10 to make. We think that’s crazy. So we’ve decided to do something crazier......and have TOTALLY TRANSPARENT PRICING. That’s why at BEAUTY PIE, you can see a pricing transparency breakdown for every product we sell.” Or for Netflix, transparency is about billing - they make a point of letting subscribers know when their free trial is about to end so they can cancel easily.

Other ways to drive trust through authenticity is about investing in real things. Whether it is stories in print magazines (in a world where Vogue’s circulation is decreasing, Away sell copies of their travel magazine for $10 each) or pop-ups which are less of a place to ‘buy’ and more of a place to ‘experience’ a brand.

Another way a brand can drive authenticity is by looking to their heritage. Adidas is one example of a brand that takes advantage of heritage yet remains new and fresh. Rather than being stuffy and old Adidas use their heritage to say “we’ve done this for a long time and therefore you should trust our brand and the products we release under it. This is a model echoed by countless iconic brands - such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Levi’s, Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co.

7. Be Human: "When you are serving digital natives, the thing they long for more than anything is human connection.” Angela Ahrendts, ex-Apple SVP of Retail

Being human for a brand can be activated in a multitude of ways but essentially it is brands becoming more like people. Glossier exhibits this through their tone of voice: welcome to BFF marketing, chatty, inclusive and intimate, this approach — predicated on the notion that a brand is your friend, thinks you’re special and is designing products especially for you. New banking apps created by big, boring companies to reach young people (such as Marcus by Goldman Sachs) and incredibly human-like: they have people names and cute, smiley-faced logos.

Another way to be human is to reject perfection. Rent the Runway admits mistakes with clear email communications about problems such as missed shipments and Carlsberg even states that it is “Probably not the best beer in the world”. Furthermore, studies have shown that 4.4 out of 5 is the consumer review score most likely to result in a purchase. Psychologists behind these studies believe that because consumers don’t trust perfection.

8. Align with Influence: Partner with other trusted brands, people or entities.

There are four ways for a brand to build trust by aligning with influence. The first is through trusted voices. Whether this is female-led dating app Bumble using Jameelia Jamil as an ambassador or Transferwise using pensioners as an unlikely group of influencers, this adopts the principle that “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me”.

Secondly, brands can align with trusted expertise. These may already exist in an organisation such as instructors for Peloton, or be brought in, such as Dan Ariely (renowned Behavioural Psychologist and Trust expert) who is now employed by mould-breaking insurance company Lemonade to help develop products and communications.

Brands can also build trust through influence by aligning with trusted partners. Examples include Dosist partnering with Soho House as their ‘preferred cannabis partner’ or WeTransfer offering users a free year of Headspace when they sign up for a Pro membership anytime over the next six months in honour of World Mental Health day.

Finally, brands can build trust through influence using sponsorships. A 2017 study in the Journal of Advertising Research found that the announcement that a company is sponsoring the World Cup or the Olympics has a measurable, positive effect on the company’s share price: shareholders appeared to see it as a sign of confidence as well as a boost to marketing.

9. Help Educate: Share your expertise to become a trusted source on that topic.

Brands can also build trust by educating consumers about their product or service in a way that is accessible and useful. Examples include FinTech Monzo’s book, weighty blog content and financial agony aunt, Glossier’s make-up tutorials or Apple’s 18,000 weekly educational sessions held in stores globally.

10. Service & Sacrifice: Putting the interests of customers ahead of your own

In order to earn trust through sacrifice, a brand must put principles ahead of profit. Examples of this include Twitter’s ban of all political adverts following the Cambridge Analytica scandal or Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ advert which asked current customers to wear what they have until it is threadbare.

In a similar vein, in order to build trust through service, brands must prioritise the needs of their customers. Investment in customer service is a short-term sacrifice for an anticipated long-term gain. According to a Sprout Social survey, when brands respond to customers, 65% become more loyal to the brand, and 25% are less likely to go somewhere else to post negative things. Social is also customers number one preferred channel for customer care...ahead of email and phone. One example is First Direct who topped a 2019 list of 100 brands by Which? for the attitude of its staff and its ‘human touch’. Another example is Boden and its generous three-month returns policy which they view as a key differentiator.

11. Champion Customers: Confidence and trust in traditional high visibility brand spokespeople has plummeted dramatically. Building trust through customers has become the strategy du jour for brands in the business of building trust.

DTC companies earn trust quickly by building reviews and recommendations into every step of the customer journey from ads, search and social to their landing pages. In fact, 87% of consumers find ads including the Trustpilot logo more trustworthy than ads without any such social proof. Social proof can also be demonstrated in the physical world, such as musicians releasing extra tour dates ‘due to popular demand’ or pop-up stores becoming permanent stores - even if this was how they were intended all along.

Trust can also be built by brands telling their customers’ stories. Bumble Buzz tells the stories of real women overcoming adversity to flourish in their careers - which plays into Bumble’s founding principle to democratise access to opportunity.

12. Foster Community: People trust people like them – and communities are where to find and connect with them. Trust is Tribal – so figure out who’s in your gang…Recognize the growing influence that comes from ordinary people, creating a community has become a go-to brand building strategy. 'Brand' will continue to transition from what was historically a signal of trust based on reputation for a great product, to a signal for identifying your in-group, regardless of the product quality. DTC MARCO

Trust can be built through communities in three ways. The first is by aligning with a community or tribe. Burger King’s rainbow ‘the Proud Whopper’ aligned to the LGBT+ community for San Francisco Pride. This ensured that Burger King’s relationship with this community is deep and true - not just lip-service. Secondly, brands can enable communities to come together. Whether in real-life (Bumble offer opportunities each week in over 150 countries for users to meet up and network), or virtually where Apple use #shotoniphone to encourage communities to come together around creativity, plus have the chance to feature on a billboard. Finally, brands can build trust by showing up on behalf of a community. Ben & Jerry’s demonstrated this by showing up for the LGBT+ community in Australia, where as part of a push for marriage equality, they banned the serving of two scoops of the same flavour ice cream in their 26 stores.

Trust during COVID-19

As previously mentioned, there are three core elements of trust. However, an unforeseen global pandemic changes things somewhat and adds a fourth:

  1. Competence: You have the ability to do what you say you will do

  2. Dependability: you can be relied upon to do what you say you will do

  3. Integrity: what you do will be fair and just.

  4. Focus of motivation: Ensuring nothing you do harms the planet or people. Action trumps talk.

This now matters because in a crisis, it is about humanity. Brands were already becoming more human and this is accelerated amid COVID-19. When we look at trust of individuals, (as opposed to business and brands) theories refer to this as Self-Orientation. This refers to the person’s focus. In particular, whether the person’s focus is primarily on him or herself, or on the other person. We might say, “I can’t trust him on this deal — I don’t think he cares enough about me, he’s focused on what he gets out of it.” Or more commonly, “I don’t trust him — I think he’s too concerned about how he’s appearing, so he’s not really paying attention.” This theory now applies to brands and their behaviours.

In fact, research by Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates that brands are being held to very high standards by consumers in this crisis with 74% of respondents agreeing that “brands placing profit before people during this crisis will lose my trust forever”.

Humanity starts with a brand’s own employee’s and drives out. This means that in order to be trusted, brands must do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers, even if it means suffering big financial losses until the pandemic ends.

During this crisis, many consumers' needs and mindsets have shifted significantly, and how brands respond to these will determine how trusted they are in the long-term. Therefore, in this crisis, it is essential for trusted brands to identify their ‘focus of motivation’ which should fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Educate

  2. Entertain

  3. Useful

  4. Connect

Educate by adding clarity

Ambiguity and unpredictability in a rapidly changing situation are huge sources of anxiety. Brands should educate only if it is relevant (e..g they are a financial, medical or news brand) and should consider communications that clarify the situation by explaining what is happening and what is likely to happen in the near future.

Entertain by lightening the mood

Only if your brand has credibility to be lighthearted should you explore this. But people will be looking for a smile amid the sadness. Non ‘COVID-19’ related Tweets only represent 1% of total Tweets now, yet a plethora of light-hearted memes, videos and viral jokes have emerged, demonstrating the need for and shareability of this.

Be Useful by being helpful

If your brand’s products and services are able to help people at this time, then use them to help people. Examples include LVMH, the French holding company of brands such as Louis Vuitton, have repurposed all of their perfume factories into sanitizer production lines. This beats pure talk. Or Disney, who knowing parents are stuck inside with their kids, gifted them with the early release of Frozen 2. In their announcement of it on social media, they did not acknowledge the motivation behind it (COVID-19 quarantine), just the benefit. This does however come with a caution: it is essential to be clear. When Brewdog announced that they were going to use their Aberdeen factory to produce hand sanitizer people thought they would be selling it and this caused a backlash (in fact, they are giving it away to the NHS and key workers).

Connect people and give back

Whilst the majority of us are holed up inside, for a brave minority it’s business as usual, risking their health every day. From clapping on a Thursday to producing a ‘thank you NHS’ advert in collaboration with Channel 4, a little appreciation can go a long way. Brands can also connect by working collectively with suppliers to help channel and communicate support where it is most needed, such as Guinness’ pledge of €1.5 million to support irish bar staff and elderly citizens. Some brands are taking this a step further and enabling customers to pledge support either through donations or loyalty points.

In summary, trust is made up of 3 core elements: competence, dependability and integrity. But trust itself is becoming a rare commodity. In fact, on a socio-political level, it is in crisis. As trust in institutions declines, consumer expectations for brands to ‘do good’ grows. This means that how people trust has changed in three distinct ways: trust is distributed, trust is tribal and trust is digital. Given these changes, it is now essential to build brand trust differently. Having analysed brands in the business of building trust, we have identified 12 key trust-building behaviours around 4 themes: Technology (innovation and data), Signals (quality, confidence, values and authenticity), Communication (be human, influence and educate) and People (service & sacrifice, customers and community). In order to build trust a brand must activate against each of these 12 behaviours.

However, the world has changed again due to an unforeseen global pandemic. This adds a fourth principle to our previously mentioned 3 core elements of trust: the focus of motivation. Trusted brands must ensure that nothing they do harms the planet or people - action trumps talk. Brands must act with humanity as they are being held accountable and are expected to behave with the highest standards during this crisis. Therefore, it is essential for trusted brands to identify their ‘focus of motivation’ which should either be to educate, to entertain, to be useful or to connect people. By following these frameworks and guidelines, brands can expect to become trusted institutions for the people they serve. However, as demonstrated, the world changes and trust changes too - so brands must remain actively engaged in building trust in order to retain it.

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