The trust imperative

Trust - sApparently, public trust is at an all-time low. Since the advent of the digital age, our general level of trust in governments and politicians, corporations, charities and the media has nosedived. Which gives rise to three questions: what does it matter, why has it happened, and what should we do about it?

Academics Chaudhuri and Holbrook were among the first to properly quantify the commercial value of trust, demonstrating what they termed the “chain of effects” from brand trust, to loyalty, to brand performance. Since then, other research has reinforced the chain, forming a broad consensus that up to 75% of customer loyalty is trust-driven, and depending on the sector, around half of a brand’s performance is driven purely by loyalty.

Most studies have involved commercial and consumer brands, but there’s no reason to assume the same isn’t true for non-profits, particularly when it comes to the loyalty and value of potential supporters, donors and volunteers. It’s safe to assume, if you didn’t already, that public trust is among the most important assets any brand has. So why is it falling, and what can you do about it?

Edelman’s “Trust Barometer” remains arguably the go-to model for understanding brand trust, and cites 16 different drivers. A more recent study by a coalition of European brand associations identified 14, and the populist HuTrust model has just six, but all fall into the same two basic categories: societal benevolence and operational competence. As far as trust is concerned, we judge organisations on the same two criteria we’ve always judged individuals: whether they’re fundamentally good people, and whether they do what they say they’ll do.

What’s really changed over the past twenty years, is how we get the information to make those judgements. In the past, advertising was the biggest influence, but in the age of social media, bloggers, commentators and our increasingly bubble-like on-line “tribe-mates”, are by far the biggest source of our perceptions. Your brand is no longer what you say it is. It’s what other people say it is, including your most vocal critics, unhappy customers and disenfranchised ex-employees. Their voices are every bit as loud as yours, and probably louder when it comes to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. So how do you keep your trust when all around you are losing theirs? By visibly stepping up your game on those same two fronts: benevolence and competence.

Charities should be streets ahead of corporations when it comes to benevolence, but for two things. Corporates need trust, and they know benevolence is what they’re missing, hence the drive for business purpose, social responsibility and public ethics that we’ve seen in recent years. Meanwhile the third sector has battled with ethics of finance (Kid’s Company), fundraising (Olive Cooke), commercial deals (Age UK and E.ON) and CEO pay. Conversely charities have historically lagged major corporates on competence, but that gap is rapidly closing. I’m seeing, indeed working with, more and more charities that want to up their game; to deliver consistent high quality; to become leaner and more effective; and to provide a more professional focus and service level to clients, customers and supporters as well as beneficiaries.

So, here’s what we need to do. First, we need to raise the bar much further on operational competence. That means setting high standards, leading with clarity and focus, managing with modern tools and techniques, and developing great people throughout the organisation. We need to treat our teams, supporters and paying customers better – if we’re doing things right, every one of them should be a loyal advocate. Do you know how many of yours are?

Second, we need to firmly retake the benevolent high-ground, which means we need to stop feeding the trolls on negative topics, and shift the conversation relentlessly back to impact, outcomes and the benefits we create for society. Any CEO (however well-meaning) attempting to justify their salary (however well-deserved) will always be seen, not as benevolent, but as self-serving. We need to create memorable stories of success – the more local and personal the better – for others to tell: customers, supporters, ambassadors, partner organisations. It’s not what you say about yourself, it’s what influential others say about you that counts.

The order though, is important. It’s long been noted that in times of plenty, benevolence is most valued, but in times of trial, competence is king. Don’t believe me? Look at recent elections. We are in times of trial right now, and doing good is not enough. Regaining public trust requires, first and foremost, outstanding competence. Are you providing a consistently excellent experience for everyone who interacts with you? If not, that’s your number one trust imperative.

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