Who do you trust?

Posted by Tom Vannozzi, on 29th April 2019

Ahead of his June paper at NEXT 2019 Chicago, Tom discusses how trust has evolved and why our measurement of it must improve.

One of my favourite TV shows is called Salvage Hunters.  It is about Drew Pritchard, ace antiques hunter and his travels across the country looking to find and buy new pieces that he can sell on.  I have little interest in antiques, the bit I enjoy is when Drew eventually finds something he wants and negotiates a price with the seller.  9 times out of 10 Drew gets the price he wants.  He always claims to offer a fair price, but I am not sure I would trust Drew – after all he didn’t get to become a king of the antiques business with his own TV show by being a poor negotiator. He has to buy low and sell high.   He often has superior knowledge about what he is buying and if he is buying from someone else in the antiques trade the gloves come off and he will beat them up on price if he can.  He employs certain techniques for building trust when he meets someone new – for example he might buy a small piece for a good price when he really has his eye on something else and he builds rapport by liberally complementing the seller on their home. This is a trust transaction in its purest form.  As the seller do you trust yourself and your knowledge to get a good deal against Drew?  You would be a fool if you did.    But on the other hand you want to sell this junk and Drew has wads of cash, so what the hell!  In the pre industrial age most transactions were like this – trust was personal, you could see the goods on sale and look into the eyes of who you were dealing with and negotiate the price. In the post industrial age a major shift took place with less transactions taking place on a one to one basis.  Instead rather than trust being personal, people put their trust in institutions and brands.  Yuval Harari describes business corporations as essentially being stories and brands being icons.  Conjured into existence, corporations built trust by telling their stories and convincing people to believe them.  Advertising played its part in constructing these stories.  Some of these were complete fictions of course.  My favourite example was Camel, named for the Turkish paper it used, which in 1946 began a major ad push showing doctors lighting up with the famous tagline, “More doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette.”  The doctors were actors but using professionals such as medical practitioners as a shortcut to trust still persists today in advertising. Skip forward to the present day and we have entered a new age of trust – the trust information age.   We now have greater transparency than ever before.  I purchased a second hand car this week from a car dealer.  Not the type of trade which traditionally has had a strong reputation for trust.  In the past I have purchased cars that have had their mileage altered and one time I turned up to collect a car that I had purchased from the dealer that was sat there with the engine running.  It seemed suspicious and it turned out it was because the starter motor didn’t even work – the dealer was hoping I wouldn’t notice and drive off!  So I don’t have a great track record. However, whereas before I might have had to rely on the car manufacturer’s claims of reliability and perhaps the convincing hand shake of the dealer themselves, now, in the trust information age, I have a wealth of information at my fingertips.  I was able read reviews of the car by owners of the same model online and read reviews of the dealer I was buying from.  The dealer sent me a 15 minute video (as the car was located hundreds of miles away) showing me the condition of the vehicle, the paperwork and any damage.  Not all dealers have this kind of information available of course, but I went with one who did because I trusted them more.  The point is I didn’t need to trust in the story of the car brand (although I admit that might still have played a part in the car I chose!) or the dealer themselves.    I placed my trust in hundreds of other people who had already been through the same experience.  Technology has allowed trust to be dissolved away from corporate brands to the consumers, and they are now the ones creating the stories. You might think that, as a result of this dissolved version of trust and with so much information now available on review sites we are now living in a trust utopia.  However, the credibility of all reviews — even real ones — is questionable. Trustpilot has more than 50 million reviews of 270,000 companies and is the UK’s largest online ratings website.  Earlier this month The Times ran an article detailing how estate agents and banks have been accused of gaming Trustpilot by paying it to help gain better review scores.  Analysis by The Times of almost 200,000 reviews on Trustpilot has found that some companies are jumping from a handful of bad responses one month to hundreds of positive reviews the next. The biggest companies pay Trustpilot tens of thousands of pounds a year to access its marketing services.   Subscribers can use the company’s technology to filter the reviews they place on their own website or corporate Facebook pages, allowing customers to read only favourable posts. So, representativeness of online ratings can be questionable and the battle for trust continues in the marketplace.  But what does this mean for researchers and how can we better measure trust?  At Jigsaw we are often asked questions by our clients such as ‘What are the drivers of trust for our brand?’ or ‘Our goal is to become the most trusted brand in our category – how do we measure our progress towards this?’ Our work in this area has shown us that the typically used measures of trust (e.g. ‘do you agree that this brand is trustworthy?’) correlate poorly with growth.  Trust is complex and several factors are at play:  There is ‘Effective Trust’ – is the brand going to do what it promises me, offer value and make the transaction easy for me?  Then there is ‘Connective Trust’ – whether the brand is creating a more emotional connection by acting in my best interest, going the extra mile and valuing me.  Our analysis has shown that brands need to be both effective and connective when it comes to trust in order to deliver strong financial growth. Although how we place trust in companies that sell us goods is evolving over time, one thing remains constant:   In the continuing battle for our hearts and minds understanding and building trust continues to be core to growing a business. Tom and Julie will be presenting at the NEXT Conference in Chicago on the 13-14 June.