We welcomed our latest intake of graduates last week. I was explaining our agency ethos to them: how we put the 'R' back into CRM (customer relationship management) and build genuine relationships between customers and brands.
One of the grads - we hire them smart - asked "But we're not talking about proper relationships, are we? Not like you have with your family, or a girlfriend?"
And there you have it. This 21 year-old has it bang on. Why should consumer relationships be any different from those we forge with our family, friends, partners?
My closest personal relationships are built entirely on trust. When I trust someone, I invest time getting to know them. I open up. So do they. The more I know them, the more I trust them. And so on. I've chosen my friends because I believe in their integrity, their character. My hairdresser because I rely on her ability. Trust determines who I want in my life.
Now think about choosing a car, picking a mobile phone provider, or ordering a sofa. Are those decisions so very different? If I'm going to part with my hard-earned, I want to believe in the integrity, ability and character of that brand. I have to trust them.
The trouble with trust is that it's easily broken. Just like with a personal relationship, if a brand lets you down, over-promises or abandons you when you need them most, that trust is gone. And it's very hard to get back.
Today, we're all a lot more sceptical about who we trust. The days of deferring to big brands and institutions are long gone. It seems to me there are three trends eroding trust on a daily basis:
1. Choice is just so tempting
We're actively encouraged to be brand floozies. To switch, to swap, to transfer our affection and attention to whoever will lure us away. With an ever growing array of choice, brand loyalty is fast being replaced by brand promiscuity.
2. Reputation goes a long way
Ever Googled someone before a date? Possibly. Searched for reviews, read ratings, sought recommendations from your peers before booking a holiday? Of course. We all trust word of mouth over marketing hype - that's why peer-recommended brands like AirBnB are leaving traditional models behind.
3. We've been hurt too many times before
Scandals. Abuses of power. Year after year, we're let down by the very brands we've placed our faith in. When high-street stalwarts declare there's horsemeat in burgers, it's very difficult to know who to trust. Once that trust is damaged, it's hard for brands to re-earn it. And ever harder for consumers to trust again. Transparency, honesty and meaning come very sharply back into focus.
What can brands do to win (and keep) trust?
There's a huge opportunity for brands to want to prove their character and intent. Another for brands who'll simplify decision making. And even more for those who respect their customers' intelligence. Brands working on their trust strategy have a distinct first mover advantage.
Take EDF Energy, for example. Their Blue Price Promise means that if a competitor launches a product that's at least £1 cheaper a week, EDF let their customers know. In addition, a Blue Price Promise calculator invites customers to carry out a free, personal price comparison with any competitor's products. Utterly transparent, this model will certainly cultivate and nurture trust - thereby growing loyalty.
Then there's Sainsbury's Brand Match. As ever, supermarket wars are raging, fuelled further by the arrival of LIDL and ALDI. An endless array of offers and price-cuts mean customers' heads are turned so much, they're positively spinning.
But Sainsbury's have simplified everything. They promise customers they won't find branded goods cheaper at Asda or Tesco. Sainsbury's customers can continue to shop as usual, safe in the knowledge they're not missing a deal elsewhere. It seems you can be faithful and still get the best value.
So, big, traditional brands can and do employ trust tactics. But it's the new brands that are being built with trust at their absolute core. I mentioned AirBnB earlier. Take a look at the site. There's an entire section called 'A community built on Trust'. And it's not just a buzzword. From the way recommendations are made and verified, all the way through to the payment process, AirBnB is the embodiment of trust. More traditional brands are going to have to work hard to keep up.
Back then to our graduate's question. Yes, when we talk about customer relationships with brands, we are absolutely talking about 'proper' relationships. That's what we're passionate about at our agency - nurturing proper relationships, and respecting our customers' all-important trust.
Because as any customer will tell you: 'I don't trust easily. So when I tell you I trust you, don't make me regret it.'