We’re all adept at seeing through crafted messaging, political rhetoric and marketing hype. After all, social media has done an excellent job of training us to curate our images and craft ‘authentic’ profiles. We stylize our Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, LinkedIn resumes, and iPhone playlists to project a personal brand. And as savvy manipulators of identity ourselves, we’re more and more skeptical of brands’ ‘authentic’ stories and claims of doing good. Add in spam, hacking and fake news, and it’s no wonder distrust in business and longstanding institutions is at an all time.

Customers and employees define trust personally

A brand is the human face of a business. And as in any healthy, human relationship, trust is the starting point for cultivating brand loyalty, not the endgame or the highest accolade a company can achieve. Indeed, trust is the foundational building block for any positive relationship between a business and its customers, employees, investors and suppliers. Yet each customer, employee, or stakeholder of a business may not define trust in the same way.

Think about your own expectations for the people you trust as compared to your best friend’s. You may trust a sister or brother who is there to listen when you’re down and not care if they tell a mutual friend about it or share personal stories with you. Your best friend on the other hand, may only trust a sibling who keeps his or her secrets and who also confides theirs. In the same manner, the way we each develop trust in a brand is personal, and often dependent upon our past experiences with that brand and with others.

Five characteristics that develop trust

Over my three years of research into brand leadership, good corporate citizenship and favorite brands, that resulted in the five-step model of Brand Citizenship®, I heard people use a multitude of words to describe the brands they trust: reliable, dependable, honest, transparent, having integrity, selfless, respectful, and more. Combing through the data, though, it became clear that brands that cultivated the most trust embodied five characteristics: Clarity, Reliability, Sincerity, Reciprocity, and Active Listening.

  • Clarity: When a brand clearly communicates what it delivers, it provides customers with a benchmark from which to measure all their interactions with you. Taken one step further, when a business shares why it exists and how it helps to create meaningful value - to customers, employees and society - it is more likely to foster an emotional connection with its fans.
  • Reliability: Although it’s easy to be wooed by shiny new toys and impressed by the large number of “likes” that successful viral campaigns deliver, consistency and dependability are the essential tools for building trust and developing a loyal customer base.
  • Sincerity: Like a sincere person, a sincere brand is honest and genuine. It exhibits deeply human characteristics, and openly shares its point of view on the world, expressing this not only in its communications but also in its actions and the experiences it offers – with customers, employees and other stakeholders.
  • Reciprocity: Like our most trusted friends, the most trusted brands give as well as take. Loyalty programs that are more like lip service or one-sided data collection tools can do more harm than good in building trust.
  • Active listening: Brands that invest time listening to customers, employees, and other stakeholders, and then acting on what they learn, more readily foster trust. Listening requires more than monitoring people’s response rates to campaigns or new product and service initiatives and then using algorithms to determine what to send them next.

Trust is earned, not owned

While countless brands include trust as a value or personality attribute in their strategy, no brand can own trust. In the same way a new friend, colleague, or neighbor gains our trust by the way they behave, your business must earn trust over time through its collective actions. And these actions must acknowledge you understand what’s important to your customers, employees, and other stakeholders, and freely give more to benefit them, the local community, and society and the planet.

If you’re interested in learning more about nurturing trust and how leadership companies, both large and small, cultivate it effectively, you will enjoy Chapter 4 of Do Good.