A critical job of a global marketing professional is to understand the mindset of the customer. For the brand manager, this means stepping into the shoes of the customer – understanding unmet needs, desires, and the motivation to attach themselves to the brand. The key to this attachment is trust.
As marketers we are all aware of the link between trust and customer loyalty and commitment, but what may not be so apparent is the link between public and private trust in communities, or countries, for that matter.
Does the rise in public distrust reflect poorly on brands?
The Trust Survey
Studies like the Edelman Global TRUST BAROMETER seem to indicate a connection. In fact, Richard Edelman, President & CEO of says that what is at play is a dangerous “grand illusion.”
From the economics of inequality, described by Thomas Piketty in his best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, we now observe the inequality of trust around the world. I would posit that there is a “grand illusion” at play – a lingering notion that elites continue to lead and the masses will follow.
The Edelman TRUST BAROMETER 2016 results indicate a trust gap is emerging between elite and mass populations.
The global survey asks respondents how much they trust the four institutions of government, business, nongovernmental organizations and media to do what is right. The survey shows that trust is rising in the elite or “informed public” group – those with at least a college education, who are very engaged in media, and have an income in the top 25 percent. However, in the “mass population” (the remaining 85 percent of the sample), trust levels have barely budged since the Great Recession.
According to the survey, “we are seeing the ﬂipping of the classic pyramid of inﬂuence as peer-to-peer discussions overtake the inﬂuence of elites. It is my belief that the mass population is relying less on newspapers and magazines and, instead, chooses self-aﬃrming online communities and television news. The most credible source of information on social networking sites is ‘my friends and family,’ a source considered much more believable than CEOs and government oﬃcoals.”
The rise of trust inequality seems to be a major pillar in the campaigns of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France, notes Edelman.
Across the globe, CEOs are viewed in a cynical light: more than half of the general population do not trust CEOs to do the right thing:
Additionally, employees are increasingly distrustful of their companies: one in three employees don’t trust their employer. And more than two thirds feel that CEOs are too focused on short-term performance. As a result, employees are far less likely to say positive things about the company they work for.
Trust inequality is highlighted with every business, institution, or CEO that fails visibly:
Trust and Neuroscience
While marketers have taken largely a social science approach to understanding the role of trust and applying those insights, neuroscientists have been studying trust from the standpoint of brain function and how that influences behavior.
Laboratory work by Paul Zak, and his colleagues at Claremont Graduate University has uncovered an apparent “switch” in the brain that can “turn on” trust.
Apparently the neurochemical oxytocin (OT) is synthesized in the human brain when one is trusted or simply treated well. The OT molecule, in turn, motivates reciprocation. The release of OT signals that the other party is “safe” to be around and that cooperative behavior will not be exploited.
OT appears to be the neurochemical that emotionally connects us to others by enhancing empathy, which is why it is sometimes called the “love hormone” (think brand love).
For an example of oxytocin-releasing campaign, watch this Google India advertisement, that explores the pain of partition, of old friends separated for years by political boundaries – only to be reunited years later, through the power of Google’s search. The advertisement has over 13 million YouTube views. Although the ad is in Hindi, the emotional language used is universal.
SIDENOTE: In a divisive election year in the US, I expected Coca-Cola to unveil a “united we stand” campaign that brought people together, but I haven’t seen anything yet. Alas – but there’s still time, Coke!
A Systems Approach to Trust
I posit that the negative publicity around the trust scandals – both political and business related – has precipitated an even larger trust-gap across the public consciousness. A systems approach to analyzing the trust gaps may help shed some light on the problem of trust. Where does the trust gap occur?
The diagram above shows the various trust gaps between the various institutions and the public. I am currently researching these gaps in an effort to see how the trust gap creates a trust tax on every transaction in civil and commercial endeavors.
Trust and a New Economy
For David Korten, a leading voice in this space, the Old Economy fails because it is based on false values, assumptions, and logic. For Korten, we are facing the Great Turning, a framework for understanding our time within a deep historical context and for defining the collective choice we must now make as a species. He states:
to secure the human future it is necessary to turn from growth to the reallocation of resources as the defining economic priority. Eliminate harmful uses (military, advertising, sprawl, and financial speculation), increase beneficial uses (environmental regeneration, food and energy self-reliance, health, education, and productive investment), and give priority to the needs of those the old economy excludes and represses (the desperate, hungry, and indentured). The transition to a New Economy is foundational to navigating the Great Turning.
Corporations may be better positioned than governments to understand–and respond to–emerging societal needs. Not the broad and abstract “public interest” trumpeted by enlightenment thinkers, but rather the fine-grained, on-the-ground, “micro” interests of actual individuals, families, and communities (human and natural). Getting “close to the customer” is, after all, the stock and trade of the corporate world.
Can Marketing Close the Trust Inequality Gap?
Some marketers are making the effort with cause-marketing initiatives that strive to close the trust gap. Sadly, most of these well intentioned efforts fall flat. Why? Because cause-marketing efforts are too little, too late. Buying a bracelet isn’t going to solve anything.
Increasingly, brands must stand for the common good. And they must have an impact on doing good, not merely talking about it.
A new trend, appropriately named reconciliation branding is described as smart brands taking action to promote social harmony and repair the bonds of our shared humanity.
Trendwatching describes the phenomenon as follows:
Once, consumer status was all about affluence. Today, it’s less about ‘what I have’ and much more about ‘who I am’: creative, connected, tasteful and, yes, ethical. Millions want to show others that they are ethically conscious, and that means engaging with brands that have – and communicate – the right values when it comes to social issues.
Here are a few examples of reconciliation brand campaigns:
In June 2016, vodka brand Smirnoff partnered with street artist Morley – known for his trademark ‘statement poster’ works – to create a campaign promoting compassion for immigrants. Morley interviewed ten real immigrants and used quotes from those interviews to make ten eye-catching posters, which were displayed on bus stops around Los Angeles.
- Ariel India
Procter & Gamble-owned laundry brand Ariel India promoted its Share the Load equality campaign with a second commercial released in February 2016. The video depicts a father apologizing to his daughter for his failure to help out with household chores, and ends with the message, ‘Why is laundry only a mother’s job?’, before prompting men to #ShareTheLoad at home. The video received a boost when it was called out by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
For the International Anti-Bullying Day in May 2016, Argentinia-based biscuit brand Bagley created special biscuits to raise awareness of the issue. The brand’s Sonrisas (meaning ‘Smiles’) were baked into sad faces, instead of happy ones. Posters and limited-edition packaging for Sonrisas biscuits explained that ‘bullying takes away your smile’.
- De Tijd and L’Echo
After the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, statistics showed that the bankruptcy rate of restaurants in Brussels increased by 1,500%. Newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo launched the #DiningforBrussels campaign to encourage city residents to eat out more. People were encouraged to eat out and then take a photograph of their finished plate with their cutlery placed in a peace sign, before sharing the hashtagged image across social media. Participants had the chance to win dinner for two people at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brussels.
- Uber Brazil
For one day in June 2016, Uber offered free collection of donated items in support of Porto Alegre Prefecture’s Winter Campaign. Operating between 10am and 4pm, collection could be booked through the Uber app. Garments, bedding, personal hygiene items, non-perishable food, and pet products could all be donated to the Brazilian city’s campaign, which aims to provide care for vulnerable people through the winter.
Is this enough? No, but the bar is being raised every day.
How is your company’s strategy embracing public good? Are your products and services healing or hurting the planet? Where is your next innovation coming from?
Is your marketing sincere?
Madison Bloom is the nom de plume of a branding executive based in San Francisco.