I had the great pleasure of moderating a panel at AdWeek Europe on the issue of trust earlier this year. The session was titled “Trust: Digital’s New Currency,” and there was broad agreement on the panel—which included among others the CEO of Clear Channel UK, the European Editor of Newsweek, and Phil Stokes, partner, Entertainment & Media Industry, PwC EMEA—that in today’s environment, trust is a valuable currency indeed.
It always has been. Before consumers act on an advertising or marketing message, after all, they need to trust it. In the digital age, however, it seems that consumer trust is under threat from more sources than ever before. If consumers aren’t knowledgeable and wary of digital scams, they can soon become victims of them. How do you reach people forced to have their walls up? And of course, agencies and brands have their own trust issues to work through, given click fraud and other practices that make it challenging to know what is real and what is not online.
How I See It
- Trust is something that is difficult to gain, and easy to lose. For brands, I believe that’s more true than ever in the digital age. Thankfully, old fashioned values still prevail: if brands are committed to doing things the right way, including their marketing, they should win out with consumers in the long run.
- Trustworthy brands and agencies, in the first instance, refraining from taking action that would cause others to lose trust in them. That is the defensive aspect of trust. But there is also an offensive aspect to trust, which can be aided by digital technology. Building up a social media presence, for instance, and being transparent with audiences on the Internet can help greatly in winning trust.
How the Industry Sees It
I sat down with Phil Stokes, Partner, Entertainment & Media Industry, PwC EMEA—who participated in the AdWeek panel—for further insight on the issue of trust.
Do you believe that consumers have become less trusting of advertisers in the digital age? Why do you think that is the case?
I’d start with a more general observation—that the high levels of trust which have sustained the relationships between individuals and institutions, between customers and products and between each other, have been under sustained pressure across the board—politicians’ expenses, scandals in the church, faked car exhaust emissions testing, LIBOR rigging, insurance miss-selling, drugs in sports—they all contribute to a sense that trustworthiness is a rarer commodity than we thought. At the same time, the world has changed—individuals are capable of ‘seeing’ more, of understanding more and making better-informed judgments. So whether this is about brands or adverts or corporations or institutions, the combination of always-on social media, instant mobile communication, user-friendly analytics and the sheer computing power available to crunch data means the asymmetry of power and the asymmetry of information has been eroded. You and I can now see across a market or an industry and access information on the best price, the best quality and the availability of alternatives, in a way that just wasn’t possible before, when companies could better manage what we knew and what we saw. In this sort of world, the innate requirement to need to trust what you’re being told can be overridden by the ability to investigate and challenge, and to reach what might be regarded as more objective, and less subjective, decisions. More head, less heart. Less trust.
What is the most harmful way in which a brand can lose consumer trust?
Saying one thing and doing another. Promising one experience and delivering another. That visibility, with individuals in more control, means that brands that lack authenticity are found out faster and discarded.
Should brands be thinking about consumer trust as a company asset like currency, real property, or accounts receivable? What is the best way for them to think about trust?
Being in a relationship of trust allows you to be more resilient—to occasionally get things wrong and still survive—so on that basis, yes, it’s a valuable asset that supports future profitability. But trust is a hard asset to sustain. It can’t be bought or sold. In essence, trust is the cumulative output of thousands of interactions between a brand and its customers. I believe trust is based on the authenticity I mentioned before, on a shared vision and an understanding that people are always doing the right thing to support that vision, even when no-one’s looking. Then the thousands of interactions feel ‘real’, because they are.
What are some of the best ways for brands to cultivate trust with consumers?
I think it’s interesting that brands and organizations in general are more porous than they used to be. What I mean by that is that there used to be rigid walls around organizations—information only emerged from them through press releases or authorized spokespeople. Also that fully-honed, finished products or services were sold with little or no further contact with the customer until they needed to buy another product or service. Now brands and organizations are in a constant dialogue at all levels of the organization—the walls are no longer rigid and customers are encouraged to interact on a continuous basis as they use the product—and to co-create the next group of products. Great brands maintain an interesting and valuable dialogue with customers between purchases. Data analytics and programmatic methods of determining propensity to buy are all very well (and have their place in the mix). There’s really no substitute for actually being in a relationship with an individual customer so that the customer shares with you what they want (though personal data, or preferences), not what someone like them might want. Someone once said to me, ‘It’s easy to estimate the height and weight of a person from a distance, but to know what they’re feeling and to take their pulse, you have to be holding their hand.’ I liked that. It speaks, for me at least, to trust stemming from a shared relationship, not from one-way communication.
Do you think more industry or government regulation is in order on the issue of trust?
As new platforms and ways of marketing develop, we need to be alive to that but in general, no, I think there’s good legislation already in existence to stop people crossing the line—but I do think it could be better enforced. Calling out bad behavior in adverts that mislead and products that fail to deliver their promises can and should deter other brands from following suit but the key is to call it out both quickly and visibly so as to act as an effective deterrent. That puts a responsibility on communities to look out for the outliers and join together to correct them quickly in the best interests of the community.
We talk a lot about the danger of losing consumer trust, but how can brands that have successfully built up consumer trust leverage it in a positive way?
It’s back to the resilience point—if you don’t experiment you can’t innovate, and trusted brands can experiment more often and take greater risks when they do. Trusted bands can therefore evolve to sustain relevance to customer, while surviving inevitable missteps along the way.
What is the most interesting object in your office?
Either the book I wrote about Clive Barker’s Abarat series or the painting of key moments in my life done by one of my PwC partners in India—and she has one by me of her story on her wall in Mumbai (the joys of a development course we went on together!).