The trust timeline

The meaning of trust may not have changed, but the way to earn it has

The meaning of trust may not have changed, but the way to earn it has

Witness the past 30 years in American consumerism. There was a time when a company only had to strap its product to an outboard motor (or Mickey Mantle's bat, or the spinning insides of a vacuum cleaner) and declare, "It takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'."

Those iconic 1950s ads - backed up with a truly reliable product - were enough to earn Timex a solid reputation as a company you could count on. The catchphrase itself became American shorthand for durability.

But that was before Thalidomide, Enron, WorldCom, even Watergate and 9/11 for that matter - all events that taught Americans not to trust so easily. A clever ad campaign, regardless of how convincing its demonstrations may be, is no longer enough to get on America's good side.

Or as Ray Jordan, VP of public affairs and corporate communications at Johnson & Johnson puts it, "Trust isn't easy."

Making personal connections

More than delivering a reliable product, companies today need to deliver on many fronts. And they need to do it constantly. Today's customers don't just patronize a company, they relate to it. They consider it an extension of their personality, depending on what the company provides. Trust now is a deeply personal issue. So it's not necessarily irrelevant when the company that brews your beer gives its money to causes you disagree with.

Al Golin and Fred Cook, respectively founder and CEO of GolinHarris, have spent years thinking about why consumers decide to trust the agency's clients.

"Some people say that back in the good old days, things were different," writes Golin via e-mail. "People and companies had ethics, not like today. I say that's nonsense.

"It's just that companies can't get away with things they [once did]," he continues, "We live in a transparent society now."

"The expectations of the average consumer are much higher today than ever," adds Cook. "The average American demands that the companies they do business with communicate every detail about their products and practices. And when things go wrong they automatically blame the company."

Hence the seemingly exponential increase in class action lawsuits and activist-fueled company takedowns, says Cook.

Such attitude shifts are easily traceable to a litany of corporate scandals and product crises in the past few decades. But the flip side to skepticism is an increasing eagerness to trust, a need for something to identify with. Even the most battle-weary consumer needs to believe in something. A smart company can fill that need.

"The world people live in today is more uncertain and frightening than ever," offers Ted Smyth, SVP of corporate and government affairs at Heinz. "People look for security. There is an emotional demand for trust today."

Smith sees this playing out in the increasing influence of religion over all facets of American life and the nearly ubiquitous talk of security in all its forms following 9/11.

"This creates an opportunity for a brand like Heinz to be more a symbol of trust in this world if it performs properly," he says.

But even Smyth admits that's a lofty role for ketchup. Earning that kind of trust takes more than good condiment.

"You can earn trust over a number of years as we have, but you have to work every hour, every day to keep it," he says. "There's a goodwill bank there, but you must keep filling it up with a range of reinforcers and actions."

CSR programs

One of the more popular reinforcers is the now ever-present CSR program. All but unheard of 30 years ago, CSR is now an expected part of nearly any company's outreach, largely in order to prove to consumers how decent and caring a company is. McDonald's caused no small ripple in 2002 when it issued its first-ever CSR report, the trust equivalent of an earnings report. And everyone from Heinz to American Express has some kind of program that shows its target audience what it does to improve their lives beyond making a product they enjoy.

But that's what you do in the good times. A company also needs to earn trust during the bad times. Just as you learn who your friends are when the chips are down, consumers learn which companies they can trust when things go wrong. Jason Vines, now VP of communications at Chrysler, held the same title at Ford when its Pathfinder/Firestone tire crisis hit in 2000. And despite being fired, he now praises his old employer for earning trust by talking to its customers throughout the ordeal.

"Who's the only company of the two that did something for the customer? It was Ford," he says. "I'm a rabid competitor of Ford now, but the people and the company stood up and said, 'We're going to find answers for our customers,' and it did. Firestone tried to blame everyone but itself."

But in the final analysis, CSR programs, ad campaigns, consistent quality, communicating through a crisis - they can all be summed up in two words that trust experts treasure: Touch points.

Jennifer Scott, president of Edelman's Strategy One, cites Edelman's well-known Trust Barometer.

"What really builds trust is being able to have a lot of touch points with consumers and following through on all those touch points," she says. "Quality products and services is just the number-one attribute that drives trust, but you also need to keep reaching out and touching."

That's because people today trust people, not companies. As corporations in general lose their luster, people turn to friends, loved ones, and recognized experts for purchasing advice. The more a company can show that it is made of people, not an amalgam of executives, bureaucrats, and spin doctors, the more the public will warm to it.

Employees' vital role

When it comes to trust, the relationship a company has with its employees is becoming increasingly vital.

"If we are empowering our workforce to engage on the company's behalf in complex relationships with our customers, guaranteeing that the IBM brand really is being embodied in those interactions, we could do a lot worse," says Mike Wing IBM's VP of strategic communications.

"The way you used to win trust is, 'the customer is always right.' But in the world we're moving into, people have relationships with [companies] with much greater transparency. So you have to be trustworthy in a much more open, visible, and transparent way," he says. Therefore, "the internal trust is as important as the external trust."

In a situation where one's relationship with a company extends no further than its products, quality and excellence are the elements that build lasting bonds. But when relationships become complex, as touch points increase, interactions compound, and the consumer is both skeptical and skittish, people-to-people communication is where trust grows. So now more than ever, it's good to know that employees trust you - and that you can trust your employees.

"Their needs to be a great deal of vigilance throughout the company, at all levels, to make sure the integrity of action is upheld," says J&J's Jordan. "The work inside is important."

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Tips on trust

1. People trust people before they trust companies or institutions

2. People trust companies with which they have frequent contact, not just those they deal with when making a purchase or filing a complaint

3. Customers are most likely to put trust in a company where they have agreeable interactions with employees

4. Trusted employees are those who feel they can speak authoritatively for the company

5. Customers are quicker to trust employees who speak knowledgeably and confidently about their company

6. People are eager to forgive companies that suffer a crisis, but only if they act honestly and communicate often

7. Eighty-nine percent of Americans are more likely to trust news they receive from multiple sources*

8. Americans consider business magazines the most credible source for news about a company*

9. Ninety-three percent of Americans are more likely to believe information from news sources as opposed to ads*

10. Tech companies earn trust most easily; chemical and gas companies are considered automatically less trustworthy*

* Source: Sixth Annual Edelman Trust Barometer

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