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Why We Must Use Creativity to Rebuild Trust
09 Jun 2020
The DMA’s Campaign for Great British Creativity returns with a new focus: how to build trust between brands and consumers through the creative crafts.
Chair of the DMA Creative Committee and Innovation Partner, Department of Change
You’d have expected it, wouldn’t you?
COVID-19 has changed who we trust.
According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer in April, trust in the government has surged 11 points to an all-time high of 65%, making it the most trusted institution for the first time in the 20 years the study has been going.
But despite a four-point increase in trust in business, there is a marked disappointment in how the private sector has performed during the crisis. Half of people believe business is doing poorly, mediocre or completely failing at putting people before profits. Only 43% believe that companies are protecting their employees sufficiently from COVID-19. And fewer than one in three believe CEOs are doing an outstanding job responding to the demands placed on them by the pandemic.
The report concludes: “Businesses are being called upon to demonstrate both their ability and integrity, the key building blocks of trust. This a moment of reckoning for business in Britain.”
So, looking for one burning brief to tackle this year, DMA Creative Committee has found it.
We’ve called it the Trust Challenge - and we’d like to invite you to tackle it with us.
How can we use creativity to reset people’s trust in British businesses?
Throughout this year, there’ll be lots of ways for you to get involved.
We’ll be putting out a call for you to join our Trust Spotters, alerting us to brands and businesses who are using creativity, and collaborating with their customers, to reset trust post-COVID.
We’ll be hosting Trust Challenge roundtables, and opening up the debate, to share your fails and successes in experimenting with more creative ways of responding to your customers’ fast-changing needs.
And along the journey, we’ll be collecting our learnings, leaders’ perspectives and practical advice on how all our businesses can not just earn trust, but keep it.
Which leaves me wondering how the government will fare in the next Edelman Trust Barometer, following Dominic Cummings’ roadtrips.
Meanwhile, to get the creative juices flowing, I invited some Committee members to do what creative doers do best: inform, provoke and inspire us.
To trust or not to trust?
Studies have shown that children as young as 18-24mths have already begun to distinguish between someone telling the truth or not based on key elements of body language.
At an early age, babies intuit trust from eye contact.
But as they get older, children assess trust from how the message is actually delivered in an increasingly holistic way; such as perceiving moments of hesitation or observing the use of key words.
So, evaluating ‘trust’ becomes a basic survival skill, made up of rapid feedback loops that help children ‘label’ the world and begin to make decisions for themselves.
As young adults, we evaluate the trustworthiness of a given piece of information from a person’s facial characteristics in just 100 milliseconds.
This trust in what we are told is known as ‘epistemic trust’ and we build up a reservoir of ‘epistemic filters’ to make rapid decisions every second of every day.
Children at around 4 years of age are already pretty good at ‘recording’ if someone is usually right or usually wrong in the information they impart and can reject or accept what they are told.
These ‘epistemic filters’ are the bedrock of how a society acts cohesively in order to survive. Each of us has an innate healthy self-protective skepticism towards information coming from others that may be potentially damaging, deceptive, or inaccurate.
We are frequently told the number of messages each of us has to process each day and this is putting huge strain on our epistemic filters. You only have to look at the success of various scams; the amount of fake news; and the rise of populist politics to see how things are changing.
At its primitive best, the aim of communication is to generate epistemic trust among your social group. It affords the individual’s willingness to consider new knowledge from another person as trustworthy, generalizable and relevant to the self.
At the other extreme, as the number of touch points between brands and consumers increases, delivering a consistent brand message with a supporting brand experience that can build epistemic trust is going to be a key battleground going forward.
Truth and trust
According to Tim Levine’s Truth Default Theory, our subconscious instinct is that any communication content is true, an essential step to understanding what is being said to us.
This instinct opens us up to the risk of deception, but preferentially supports our social interactions and the development of community.
After receiving messages, if a cluster of particular triggers are present, suspicion can arise, leading to trust unravelling, with only deceit leftover.
From this perspective, trust isn’t a smooth emotion, moving gradually up or down. Rather it subconsciously underpins relationships. It can continue for a while, superficially untroubled, but possibly harbouring suspicions, living in denial, until a threshold is reached, leading to collapse, with the straw that breaks its back.
What does this mean for brand communications based upon trust?
Recently whilst analysing consumer purchasing behaviour, I have seen step changes in behaviour as individuals engage with some brands. I am tempted to suggest this is the onset of trust as the brand becomes embedded in an individual’s life. These customers become the brand’s to lose rather than to gain.
What should a brand do to underpin this foundation of trust?
One. It should follow Onora O’Neill’s advice: endeavour to be trustworthy.
Two. It should creatively evidence this trustworthiness. Listen to their consumers, engage with them and demonstrate their competence, reliability and openness to support failure and mistakes with sympathy and straightforwardness.
Trust is a powerful basis for the long term, but it comes with seeds of possible betrayal, which we all know can get very messy and expensive.
Brand as trusted coach
Coaches establish trust with a client by demonstrating genuine care and concern for the client’s welfare. And today, consumers – in B2C and B2B – are demanding that brands demonstrate similar care and concern for their customers.
Of course, it is challenging, at the very least, for global brands to demonstrate authentic care, all the time, everywhere.
But, in any relationship, ‘care’ is the link between our emotions (what a brand’s stated purpose is) and our actions (how a brand behaves).
So here are 3 first rules of creating the kind of trust between brand and customer that delivers a value exchange that makes a positive – and sustainable – impact:
1) Establish a connection of reliability, trust, and caring. Be aware, be receptive, be open, be kind. And make that your mission!
2) Focus attention on the customer. Act with (good) intent, listen (actually), empathise (always), and create an empowering value exchange – throughout and within all touchpoints.
3) Listen out for what the customer is attracted to. What does the customer value? How can you deliver joy, thrill, excitement, satisfaction? And what needs to happen, from the CEO down, for the business to go that extra mile in resetting trust?
The 3 Cs of resetting trust
As we emerge from COVID-19, how can creativity help organisations to reset trust in their relationships with customers so we can co-create a new normal that’s more inclusive, more healthy and more sustainable?
First, a quick definition of terms: I think of ‘trust’, in this context, as a person’s willingness to hand over control of something important to a brand.
With that in mind, what are the levers that creative communications can pull to influence ‘trust’ between a brand and its customers, and how might the Coronavirus pandemic affect those?
Consistency. Consistency is arguably the most important quality a brand needs to amplify and build trust with its customers – consistency of behaviour, but also consistency within its communications.
From consistency, people impute reliability, which is a key component of trust. So, although the pandemic might change the messaging within your communications, it’s important to maintain consistency wherever you can. Try to keep your tone of voice and visual identity as consistent as possible, whilst being sensitive to the context of each communication.
Costly signalling. There’s no logical reason why an expensive ad with Hollywood production values makes a brand better suited to solve my business’ challenges. Although it may be true that symbols like this help me believe that the brand is successful and will be around long enough to do what they say they’re going to do.
However, in recent months, many of those blockbuster videos have been replaced by home-filmed virtual recordings (and even the PM’s Zoomed in to cabinet meetings). In fact, any show of grandeur seems out of step with a world of furloughs, redundancies and evaporating revenue forecasts.
So, for now at least, one of the biggest, shiniest levers that comms can traditionally pull to establish trust has been replaced with a big wooden-stick-labelled ‘authenticity’.
Candour. Nobody really believes in ‘perfect’. That’s why the pratfall effect can be useful for brands – sharing a small fault makes a brand, like a person, more believable.
In the months ahead, many brands will have to make choices they don’t want to make, but trying to hide those decisions will just build up a ‘trust debt’ with all your stakeholders – customers, employees and shareholders alike. Instead, be direct when you communicate the outcome of a difficult decision.
You might find that actually buys you more trust over the longer term.
Putting trust back at the heart of social
COVID-19 has changed our understanding of community and what our part is within it.
Loneliness is a debilitating fact of modern life. Extended families often live hundreds of miles apart. Many of us do not know our neighbours. But COVID has shown how much people care and how important it is to maintain connections. From sing-alongs in the street to dog walking to food shopping and chats over the fence we have reached out to strangers to help or be helped.
From great grannies to toddlers we have Zoomed and Houseparty-ed, held quizzes, dinner parties and exercise classed, with work colleagues, family and friends.
We have reached out, valuing the connection, the feedback, the gossip and the fun.
We have found ways to harness technology, to work and to communicate that we haven’t tried before – and, even as we emerge from the crisis, we are ready to continue.
Post-COVID is a great opportunity for brands to harness this ingenuity and spirit to engage and share their consumers worlds.
But they need to think differently.
Social media and digital tech have helped us navigate a locked-down world. They’ve helped us feel less alone. They reinforced that sense that we are part of something bigger than our immediate network.
So, how can brands take this increasing virtual/real blended world and truly engage consumers in ways that are convenient for happy, healthy, safe lives?
Why do social channels really exist for real people? To see ads or for connections?
For me, their real value is as a way of sharing, laughing, remembering, discovering, creating?
Brands that understand how social and tech can be used to enhance people’s lives, and where their place is in that connection, will be able to co-create a new relationship, deeper and more valuable than before.
Trust in the worst of times
Building trust in your brand is a challenge at the best of times. It’s a balance between the consumer’s personal relationship with the brand and how the brand is represented in the media.
Are their products genuinely good? Do they treat their employees well? Do they care more about their customers or their profit margin?
At the worst of times, hit by a global pandemic, many brands have decided to go to even greater lengths to ensure that they stay relevant and can maintain trust amid the cacophony of messaging out there.
The trap that some have fallen into during this crisis, however, is the perceived need to reiterate their support for their customers and remind them that they have a legacy of being there through thick or thin.
From bank to supermarket to car brands, we’ve seen a flood of same-styled ads: earnest messages of support combined with a gentle piano soundtrack and footage of consumers (or employees!) at home.
This so-called ‘social wash’ of messaging has made it nearly impossible for brands to differentiate themselves. Forget memorability.
Yet ‘standing out for the right reasons’ versus ‘standing out for the sake of it’ is, as always, a trustworthy strategy.
Brands that jump on PR stunts like Brewdog’s production of hand sanitiser can come across as ill-judged.
You only have to look at today’s political headlines to understand that saying one thing and doing another will quickly erode the public’s trust.
It seems that genuine acts of compassion or generosity from brands are the messages that have cut through - from Paypal dropping all transaction fees for small businesses to Facebook investing in stopping the spread of fake medical advice.
Real trust takes years to build, but moments to lose.
How brands approach communicating with consumers as we emerge from this pandemic will define them and help consumers to differentiate those claiming to help and those that actually do.
Trust must be stronger than fear. Through our role as creatives, this is our challenge.
Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.
The British public has built on their firm beliefs and have overcome the fear factor of COVID-19 in so many creative ways.
From the street performances for the NHS and carers clap, conjuring up creative recipes with limp lettuce and leftover lamb, and the eagerly anticipated Zoom meetings to share moments with loved ones, yet bereft when the screen shuts down. The upside will be that we are a nation who will know so many useless facts from all the quizzes.
What distinguishes these trusting relationships is the ability to make a leap of faith, believing in each other’s abilities to create solutions.
As a creative manufacturing company, we have kept going through this crisis - albeit at a reduced capacity.
We have had to be creative; sourcing alternative stocks that have provided an anti-bacterial coating; acknowledging limited manufacturing on specialist stocks, and using our expertise and knowledge to source imaginative alternatives that work with the creative brief; and utilising a real creativity with deadlines!
What do I hope for in this new landscape? Honesty, diversity, equality, sustainability, kindness and justice.
Have faith in creativity in all its forms. Trust in our ability and that of the Great British public then we will see what the next normal is.
Trust in a new creative contract
This year’s Sunday Times Rich list exposed some founders and directors of companies for furloughing staff, despite being among the wealthiest people in the country.
And in the past, Facebook took a huge hit for Cambridge Analytica’s questionable use of customers data.
These are just two high profile instances where customers’ trust in brands has been eroded in recent times but there have been many less well-known companies struggling to retain trust and credibility particularly during this current crisis.
How can brands reset and reignite that trust?
Well, it’s not just what you say.
It’s about what you actually ‘do’ for your customers to make their lives better – and make them feel better about your brand.
Sometimes mainstream advertising and management consultants are not the answer.
What’s required is less hard sell and more answering and addressing customers’ needs.
And creating trust demands honesty on all sides.
On top of this, brands need to stand for something now, more than ever.
It’s hardly surprising that the success of brands like Apple, Nike, Lego, Pret, Ikea, and Dove has endured for so many years.
These brands are trusted - and they have one thing in common: irrespective of their size, they have maintained a ‘challenger’ mentality allied to creativity.
- Trusted brands tend to have a clear vision or purpose.
- Trusted brands make you sit up and take action.
- Trusted brands are inspirational, relevant and continually engage.
- Trusted brands put customers at the heart of everything they do and make a difference to people’s lives at all touchpoints.
When customers trust a brand, they feel they ultimately own it, they champion it and, if necessary, they can shape or change it.
Maybe ‘new experience development’ rather than ‘new product development’ is more essential in the future.
And perhaps brands need to reimagine themselves in the future, look at what they’re currently not doing and start rebuilding tomorrow by listening to their customers and addressing their needs today.
It’s imperative that we devise a new creative contract between brands and their customers based on trust.
One that consists of a unique combination of honesty, two-way engagement and the creative spirit that powers growth through trust.
Is your brand up for it?
For more from the Campaign for Great British Creativity, head here.
Join a webinar launching our latest research findings on the emergence of creative consumer as we examine Pathways to Creativity in 2020.