What is Brand Trust? How Do You Earn It?

... or rebuild it after a scandal?

Written by Mae Rice
Published on Aug. 03, 2020
What is Brand Trust? How Do You Earn It?

As we step up to the register at the grocery store, we rarely think, “Time to trust brands!”

But that’s what we’re doing.

It’s not totally unconscious, either. A 2019 Edelman survey found that 81 percent of 16,000 respondents, spanning eight different countries, described brand trust as a deciding factor in their purchasing decisions.

“You don’t experience the benefits of the product or service until after you’ve [at least] committed to pay,” Kent Grayson, associate professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and co-founder of The Trust Project at Northwestern, explained to Built In. “So there’s trust that after I make the commitment, I’m going to get the benefits ... [or] I’m going to get some or all of my money back” from the brands involved: the store, or the manufacturer.

“There’s trust that after I make the commitment, I’m going to get the benefits.”

Brand trust is more complicated than it sounds, though, because brands can’t really be trusted. A brand is just a symbol — a logo, a trademarked proper noun — and we can only trust humans and human-dependent things. Trust means choosing to believe in a person or thing while knowing that it’s tangled up with motivations that may conflict with your own, Grayson said.

So really, “brand trust” is shorthand for a complex mix of trusting the brand’s leadership team, employees, policies and more. It’s multifaceted and essential; in most cases, brands have to earn trust before they can earn money.

We asked Grayson to tell us more about what “brand trust” means, how companies earn it — or rebuild it after a scandal.

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First of All, the Trust Piece of Brand Trust Has Three Parts

Though different academic disciplines give the three pillars of trust different names, it “all boils down to three things,” Grayson said:

The Three Pillars of Brand Trust

  • Competence: This means consumers believe “the people who own the brand and run the brand have the skills to do the job,” Grayson said, “and can meet or exceed expectations in terms of those [raw] skills.”
  • Benevolence: This means that when the brand’s leaders and employees make decisions, they take customer interests into account in a “tangible and legitimate way.” That doesn’t mean the brand prioritizes customers’ interests above all else and gives away their product for free, but it does mean the company isn’t purely selfish.
  • Integrity: This means the brand and its employees make statements that “match with reality,” as Grayson put it. “They tell the truth and keep their promises.”

When customers perceive a brand as all three — competent, benevolent and having integrity — that’s the highest form of trust. Most brands are stronger on some pillars than others, though, Grayson said.


The ‘Brand Piece of Brand Trust Has More Than Three Parts

“A brand can really mean a hell of a lot of different things,” Grayson said — especially to a loyal customer, well-versed in what a brand’s about.

It can encompass the leadership team and their public personas, the look and feel of the stores (assuming the brand has any), the customer service team, the products, the logo and packaging, the internal product, the unstated expectations a customer brings to the table when they buy a new product from the brand, and more.

It’s “the organization and the people and the ethos and the essence that’s behind the brand,” Grayson said.

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Surveying Customers Is the Best Way to Measure Brand Trust

The survey design requires some nuance, though.

“I wouldn’t just say, ‘Do you trust Starbucks?’” Grayson said. The key overall, whatever company you’re looking at, is to break the vast concept of brand trust into bite-size pieces.

So if he were researching brand trust for Starbucks, he might ask how customers feel about baristas’ competence, integrity and benevolence; he might even ask separate questions about the baristas at a customer’s favorite Starbucks store and baristas in general.

If there are three elements of trust, and at least 10 elements to most brands, that means a brand trust survey needs to tackle at least 30 topics — and the questions need to be as specific as possible.


Building Brand Trust Means Making Good on Explicit and Implicit Promises

Brand trust is subjective — it’s a “belief that a company is going to deliver on the promises that I feel it has made,” Grayson said. Key phrase: “I feel.” The company may do something perfectly legal in terms of contract law, but if the customer feels it was a breach of trust, then it was.

Car rental companies experience this firsthand. Often, a client will prepay for a car reservation, arrive at the airport kiosk and find that the vehicle model they reserved isn’t available — or the car rental company doesn’t have any car available, period.

The company may do something perfectly legal in terms of contract law, but if the customer feels it was a breach of trust, then it was.

(This happens for the same reason airlines sometimes overbook flights: the company misjudged how many people would skip out on their reservations.)

“It may be OK if you look in the fine print of the Terms of Service agreement, but if the client doesn’t read those — and most people don’t — then you’ve violated an implicit agreement,” Grayson said.

So when it comes to most car rental companies, brand trust has “rightfully eroded.”

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A Trustworthy Brand Doesn’t Look the Same to Everyone

It’s not always clear what counts as a ding to brand trust. Nothing shows this more clearly than the recent crop of brands expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the Black community.

“If you associate yourself with a cause that you think your customers care about, and they realize that it’s all talk and no action, that comes across as dishonesty,” Grayson said. “And maybe even lack of benevolence because it’s like, ‘You didn’t think that I had enough intelligence to see through the fact that you’re saying you have solidarity with Black Lives Matter and your hiring practices are extremely racist.’ So that can really hurt trust.”

It’s a risk. And for some more activist-leaning market segments, like the members of advertising industry diversity advocacy group 600 & Rising, these statements’ “words ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences.” In other words, the statements read as failures of integrity: they don’t align with reality.

For better or for worse, the customer is always right when it comes to what boosts or depletes brand trust.

(Some brands issuing solidarity statements have had few, or zero, Black employees.)

But for demographics with different values, these statements might have a different effect. “Saying that they have solidarity with a particular cause, but not actually having solidarity might be fine for some [market] segments,” Grayson said.

For better or for worse, the customer is always right when it comes to what boosts or depletes brand trust. But one customer doesn’t always agree with the next customer.


It’s Easiest to Bounce Back From Brand Trust Violations Rooted in Incompetence

In 2016, Samsung weathered a crisis: a rash of spontaneously combusting phones. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 — then the latest and greatest from the company (complete with a stylus) — launched in the summer to rave reviews.

By September, though, it had proved highly flammable. Videos of smoking Samsungs went viral; the phone was recalled not once, but twice by the United States government.

And yet the brand rebounded swiftly. In 2016, it reported only about $27 billion in operating profits, but by 2017, it had nearly doubled that, raking in $50 billion.

How did Samsung pull this off?

People don’t think of competence as an all-or-nothing trait.

“They framed it as a competence problem,” Grayson said. “They said, ‘Listen, we screwed up. We had a supply problem, and we just weren’t paying attention to some important details, but it was because we were operationally bad.’”

People don’t think of competence as an all-or-nothing trait, Grayson said. It’s more of a batting average. As long as a brand has regular home-runs, occasional strikeouts — even spectacular, fiery ones — register as forgivable, even normal.


Dishonesty or Selfishness Is Harder to Forgive

Other types of trust issues leave longer-lasting marks. Take Volkswagen: In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Volkswagen had been cheating on emissions tests. Many of its diesel cars in the U.S. had special software installed, which sensed when the cars were getting tested and temporarily tweaked engine function. The cars seemed to pass EPA tests with flying colors — so much so that Volkswagen built a whole marketing campaign around its diesel cars’ low emissions.

Really, though, the cars emitted more than 40 times the legal emissions limit. Volkswagen was breaking the law and cheating its own customers, who paid a premium for an allegedly “green” car.

This was clearly not a competence problem — it was an integrity problem. Like Samsung, Volkswagen apologized and launched a recall, as well as an internal investigation; more than 200 employees got fired.

Ultimately, though, Volkswagen announced plans to exit the diesel market by 2026. It’s partially an environmental decision, but “they [also] realized, ‘We can’t recover from this,’” Grayson said.

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People view trust violations involving a lack of integrity or benevolence very differently from those involving incompetence. These elements of trust are seen as all-or-nothing characteristics, so negative information on either one radically changes customer perceptions.

“When someone behaves as if they’re honest and benevolent, economists call it ‘cheap talk,’” Grayson said. “People sort of diminish the value of that positive signal.”

It’s too easy to fake.

When a company has a clear lapse of integrity, on the other hand, customers tend to think of it as authentic and revealing of the team’s true character.


So When in Doubt, Frame Brand Trust Violations as Incompetence

Many scandals can easily be framed as a competence problem or a benevolence problem. Samsung’s flaming phones, for instance, could have been a competence problem or a benevolence problem. It’s possible, in theory, that the company chose to cut corners with its supply chain to boost profits.

But when in doubt, savvy companies frame ambiguous trust violations as issues of competence. Various controlled, lab-based studies, like this one, find it works best.

“The impact on trust is much more modest,” Grayson said.


But No Matter How You Broke Customers’ Trust, You Have to Rebuild Afterwards

After any violation of trust, companies have to make amends. Sometimes, that means apologizing and being transparent with customers about the changes you’ve made to avoid similar missteps in the future. Samsung, for instance, rolled out new battery safety checks and policies to prevent future conflagrations.

Sometimes, that just means refocusing on how much customers enjoy your product. Look at Facebook — Grayson pointed out that it’s a weakly trusted brand, perceived as hyper-competent but lacking in integrity and benevolence.

“But the value that [Facebook] provides to people, in terms of connecting with others, in terms of getting news easily, in terms of playing games [and] amusement [and] keeping up with celebrities — all that stuff together seems to be sufficiently valuable,” Grayson said. “They haven’t paid a price in terms of users.”

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