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Brand communications in an age of distrust

There is an old saying that trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. It has been updated lately, with a Ferrari replacing the horse. Either way, you get the picture: trust takes seemingly forever to earn (if you can earn it at all), yet it is unforgivably quick to speed (or gallop) down the road, usually at the first sign of not just deceit or disregard but mere inattention.

The road is full of Ferraris right now.

Multiple studies show that the trust held by citizens in democracies has dropped dramatically in recent years, and then stagnated. This troubling trend is noticeable across the board. Our trust in governments, public institutions and elected leaders has dropped. Same thing goes for trust in media old and especially new, in charities and non-governmental organizations, and in most businesses and business leaders.

Massive social, economic and technological disruptions brought about our distrust. We endured long wars in Asia and the Middle East that have turned out to be indecisive at best, unnecessary at worst—and which some argue were founded on deception. We weathered a financial crisis that shook the principles and institutions of the global economy, that left millions of victims in its wake, and that has led to a trauma that is still felt in our economies and our politics. And we are living through a revolution in communications technology that has enriched our understanding and widened our perspectives, but that some have used to sow discord, corrupt elections and destabilize nations.

Start by being consistent in time, value and character

While our age of distrust is to be lamented, brands should see it as a challenge to rise to. They have a head start over the distrusted. Businesses, especially brands headquartered in Canada, stand out as the most worthy of trust. Research also shows that people are looking to CEOs as the most truthful and reliable guides to lead us out of the morass.

A big way for business brands to seize this responsibility is to use their communications to display their consistency. Why consistency above all other qualities? Consistent brand communications is merely the start of the path to trust, but the journey must start somewhere. To be more precise, brands must display consistency in three ways: consistency in time—communication that is regular for the brand and predictable for its audience; consistency in value—communication that is relevant to the brand and meaningful to its audience; and consistency in character—communication that is true to the brand and attractive to its audience.

Consistency in time, value and character secures a connection between a brand and its audience that if maintained can evolve to loyalty and eventually trust. Brands can achieve consistency in time by making their communications predictable and therefore reliable. To achieve this necessary predictability, brands must manage this aspect of their communications with as much attention and rigor as they would any other operational duty.

Then pay scrupulous attention to identifying the information your audience will welcome and appreciate. Depending on your brand’s identity, this information could vary from playful observations to provocative thought-leadership pieces.

Show good character through intelligence, conviction, humility and empathy

The third element of consistency—character—is a little trickier to pull off. It requires skilled brand communicators who know how to make sure their brands exhibit the qualities of character that people look for when they are deciding whom to trust. These qualities are intelligence, conviction, humility and empathy.

Brands show intelligence by supplying wise counsel that people seek and value most when they make decisions; conviction through unwavering faith that people yearn for in a world that is full of uncertainty and doubt; humility by submitting to others whose expertise and authority surpasses their own; and empathy by admiring and acknowledging people, and, in so doing, according them an understanding they rarely receive yet deeply crave. When brands communicate, they must make choices to represent these four qualities to the right degree and in the right balance to suit the topic, audience, occasion and medium.

Be prepared to arrive on foot

Again, this three-pronged consistency engages brands and their audiences in a way that brands can use to form loyalty and gain trust. At the same time, this approach supplements (it does not replace) other more conventional methods such as advertising. But remember: it takes disciplined effort over many months to move from one point on this trust continuum to the next—from engagement to loyalty to trust. It is necessary to arrive on foot, one might say.

Learn more

Download our guide to bringing good character to your communications.

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