Who Do You Trust?

09/07/2013 15:17 | Updated 07 September 2013

Trust - or the lack of it - is a hot topic at the moment, brought into the spotlight by a number of high-profile failures in public confidence. Banks and politicians are the main target of our growing despondency. Clearly I would not take issue with this overall trend, but I think that something quite counter-intuitive is happening below the radar. Nothing brings it to life better than an online shopping spree - a practice that I have become quite familiar with since the arrival of my twins and our family's subsequent internment in the house.

With apps like Red Laser it is now easy to zap the bar code of the product that you are interested in and find out where it is for sale at the cheapest price. In the last 12 months I have bought products and services from a huge range of different providers, far wider than the scope of traditional outlets that I would have looked to in the past.

I've spent fairly large sums of money buying things, sometimes pre-used, from organisations or people that I have never heard of. Where there is any doubt I am naively comfortable to rely on user generated reviews from people whose identities appear to be mostly made up. Today, I had a firm come and replace the tyres on my car, I had never heard of them until I Googled tyres yesterday - yet I trust them to do the job when I am not even at home. Its bizarre really, only a few years ago I would have been queuing up with everyone else at the trusted big name stores where I would pay a bit more and have the confidence that I would be satisfied with the outcome.

What has happened? Two things I think, firstly my faith in big well-known institutions and leaders has been shaken; secondly, thanks to greater transparency I've been able to put a rough price on the cost of trust, i.e. the difference between the profit-maximizing cost offered by the institutional providers and the lower, potentially predatory price offered by the alternatives.

Perhaps I can afford the higher price, but psychologically I'm not willing to let my hard earned pennies contribute to the overflowing corporate coffer or the paychecks of the 1%.

In this new scenario there are really two ways that big businesses can retain my custom: The first is exposing me to a narrative - with supporting behavior - that endears me to the business, its role in society and its core purpose in some way. The second is a loyalty programme that offsets the economic incentive to look elsewhere and reminds me to include the opportunity cost of looking elsewhere into my calculations.

The former acts to build reputation over time and reinforce trust, the latter merely hedges against the inevitable. As Google and price comparison sites get more effective at channeling my searches to the right place the opportunity cost is ever declining.

So I think I've determined that, in my case, trust is a complex thing. I suspect I'm not alone. Fairly, or unfairly, in recent years Lance Armstrong, Bob Diamond, MPs, climate scientists and Tesco with their horsemeat scandal have become the poster children for misrepresentation. But perhaps surprisingly this has not led me to be universally more cynical, instead - enabled by evolving technology - it has driven me to seek out other institutions and individuals in whom to place my trust. Outside of the consumer context - if others are experiencing the same pressure - this could explain the growth trend in alternative political voices.

If over the past two years you or your organization has become the lucky recipient of elevated levels of trust it would be dangerous to get used to this. Equally, if you have never had a problem with trust amongst your core audiences, this should not be giving you a level of comfort. Ryanair comes to mind, it has a fairly low reputation, but they do what it says on the tin - they are cheaper than the competition, even with the stealth pricing techniques, and they are more likely to be on time, and their safety record is good. Millions of people trust them every year to take them and their families around Europe. However, even with this trust, their poor reputation will almost certainly prevent them from extending the brand in other ways that can help them to grow and diversify.

Unless an investment is made in reputation, specifically in core purpose, today's trust is a tradable commodity and can disappear quickly. In this regard, I really like the work of Simon Sinek, on how great leaders inspire action. His main point is that you have to start with explaining WHY you do what you do, and get people to buy into this, then you can move onto the more pedestrian HOW and WHAT. In my view exploring this WHY aspect for individuals or corporations is the only way to rebuild reputation and hedge against today's justifiably flighty audiences.