Why saying ‘trust me’ doesn’t increase trust

With corporate trust at a low ebb, most businesses are struggling to work out how to increase their reputation.

A few years ago I was working for one such company. The business had a number of reputation challenges and I remember one day the CMO, faced with ever declining trust numbers, suggested creating a campaign solely to explain why they were a trustworthy business. Sound like a crazy idea? I certainly thought so. I tested the messages for them in a poll, they didn’t work well, and the idea was quickly dropped.

The idea can’t have been that far-fetched, however, as since then I’ve noticed lots of other businesses have been at it.

The Yorkshire Building Society have run adverts over the past year with the strapline “Built on Trust” focused entirely on the importance of trust in banking (you can view one here).

Energy company EDF took out full page adverts in the national press last year to highlight the commitments they were making to “earn your trust”. The open letter, signed by their CEO, even ended by saying “thank you for placing your trust in EDF Energy”.

Not to be outdone, newspapers have also sought to get in on the act. In the midst of the phone hacking scandal, The Daily Star on Sunday launched a cheeky and opportunistic TV campaign claiming to be the “Sunday paper you can trust”.

There’s something other than their use of the word ‘trust’ that links these three campaigns. The businesses behind them all come from industries – banking, energy, newspapers – that are amongst the least trusted of any industry sector.

It is surely no co-incidence that the sectors the public trust the least are also the quickest to try and lay claim to the trust prize. They are right to see building corporate trust as an important objective, but wrong in thinking that using trust in their marketing will lead to its growth.

Unfortunately, saying “trust us” is no more successful at increasing trust than saying ‘like me’ makes people feel good about you. You tend to like people for a reason, and the same is true of trust.

If you want to increase your trust and reputation, you need first to understand where your trust comes from. Corporate trust typically resides in two places: first, in the experience people have with your business as customers (your brand favourability, product or service reliability, sense of value, authenticity of your offer and customer experience); and second, in the perception they have of your business as citizens (your impact on society and communities, the way you treat employees and suppliers, how transparent you are as a business and your ethical conduct).

Companies tend to score badly on trust when they fall down on both of these metrics. Some do well on one but not the other. Few score strongly on both.

The key is to be able to map what are the drivers of trust for your business. What are the attributes – either for customers or as citizens – that help to increase your company’s reputation. If these attributes match what your business is known for, your campaign is already made for you. Simply communicating these strengths will increase trust. If you aren’t strong in the attributes that drive trust, then you need to ensure your business builds more evidence and proof points in these areas.

Finally the three companies I mentioned at the beginning all chose advertising to carry their trust message. Ironically, print and TV advertising is itself trusted less than other forms of communication (see Nielsen data here). If you really want to be trusted, it’s worth matching the means of communication with what you want to say.

The most trusted companies rarely, if ever, mention trust. It’s implicit in what they do and say. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a central part of their thinking.

In the end, my CMO client decided to build a campaign focused on their strong environmental credentials. Research showed it was a big driver of trust and they also had some credible proof points to assert. They built a big advertising campaign on the back of the idea and went on to win awards for their corporate reputation. And the word trust didn’t appear anywhere.

Click here to find read more on narrative development.