There’s probably no greater issue in marketing right now than the phenomenon of ‘the trust deficit’. It crops up in every client meeting I attend, and every focus group I listen to.
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer showed a 30% decline in the UK public’s trust of banks between 2008 and 2011. Trust in the media declined by 9% in 2011 compared with the year before. And that was before the phone hacking scandal hit.
Trust is complicated. Trust is a response, not a stimulus. And there’s a difference between functional trust (that ATM machines won’t short-change us) and affective trust (that an organization has our best interest at heart.) Anyone who hopes to do more than skim the surface of the subject needs a guide.
One guide I’ve turned to more than once in the last month is the new book Why Should Anyone Buy From You? by Justin Basini.
The title makes it sound like a self-help manual for salespeople who are down on their luck. But it’s much more thought-provoking than that.
Indeed, the amateur psychologist in me wonders whether it’s not something of a confessional. Because Basini is a former marketing director of Capital One, one of the most aggressive consumer lenders of the boom years.
During the course of a wide-ranging exploration of academic literature, and interviews with luminaries such as Robin Wight and Cilla Snowball, the book formulates a prescription for rebuilding brand trust.
The medicine is strong stuff. And it doesn’t come sugar-coated.
The first dose is about doing as you would be done by, and trusting your customers.
In some categories, this represents more of a challenge than others. For example, I remember the hour-long discussion which ensued in the marketing department of a bank when it was suggested that the chains be removed from the pens on the counter-tops.
Trusting your customers starts with trusting your own people. A few years ago, I was wrapping and packing in a John Lewis branch - some of the best customer service research I’ve ever done. An elderly couple came up to the Partner next to me. They had with them the most hideous mantelpiece clock I had ever seen. (And I grew up in the Midlands in the seventies.)
After five years of faithful service, one of the clock’s hands had fallen off. And they wanted John Lewis to fix it. For free.
They didn’t have a receipt for it. And anyway, the clock was clearly out of warranty. Despite this, the Partner checked whether spare hands could be located. They couldn’t. So the Partner phoned around and found a local clock mender who could do the job.
Few retailers would give their staff the discretion to waste so much valuable selling time. But John Lewis does. And that employee trust begets customer trust.
Basini’s second shot of powerful medicine is even more difficult for some to stomach. It’s about being comfortable with vulnerability.
Few people will forget Akio Toyoda’s moving acts of obeisance following last year’s quality issues with Toyota products. However, the reticence of the company in the early stages of the crisis was wrongly perceived as an act of denial.
By contrast, First Direct’s recent decision to stream live customer tweets on its website evidences a degree of openness to vulnerability few other company cultures would tolerate.
But it’s the last part of Basini’s prescription that is the most profound.
Tellingly, it appears to have been inspired by an interview the author conducts with an 80 year-old Jesuit priest called Fr Jack Maloney, who really should get a column in this magazine.
He asks Basini: ‘The jobs you’ve done, what were they for?’ The author is stumped, but he gets the point.
To inspire trust, companies need a higher purpose than the creation of shareholder value. This means far more than just CSR, which often appears merely an obligatory afterthought; the perfume sprayed into the air to disguise the stink of the pigsty.
To return to John Lewis, the stated aim of the Partnership is simple. It’s nothing less, and nothing more than ‘the greatest happiness of its Partners’.
Philosophers have long debated what ‘happiness’ means. But one thing is certain. It can’t be accounted for on a spreadsheet.
Yes, there are cheers backstage at every John Lewis in the country when the yearly bonus is announced. But in the Partnership’s case, happiness also means ensuring Partners are content with the ethics of their suppliers. And the policies which ensure the fair treatment of customers.
Too often, CSR is simply eyewash (or greenwash). Basini argues that finding a long-term purpose means addressing a deep social need which aligns with the brand’s own mission. And taking action, not just talking about it.
When it comes to tackling the trust deficit, I’ve recently found myself using a phrase attributed to a 19th Century French anarchist: ‘The propaganda of the deed’. It was once a rationale for political terrorism. I think this phrase should be rehabilitated as a description of the approach brands now need to take.
Because advertising cannot rebuild trust. As Basini’s book shows, it takes behaviour, aligned to belief. In other words, it’s time for less talk, more do.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.