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  • Writer's pictureMaitreyee Patki

Trust in a Flux

This pandemic season (season’s greetings, this has been a giant non-holiday holiday – for postcards, see here), we got the gift of social experimentation. Among other things, I had my eye on ‘trust’ and have been studying social behaviour and the impact of trust, and on trust in the pandemic context.

Trust, as defined in social psychology, refers to a person’s confident belief that another’s motivations are benevolent toward him or her and that the other person will therefore be responsive to his or her needs (1). Trust involves vulnerability. You take a risk by trusting someone with something.

Credit: Sara Zimmerman,

Should that person break your trust, it comes at a personal cost to you. What’s worse, we as irrational beings, often trust without adequate and concrete evidence to do so. We engage in ‘presumptive trust’ (2) because we have an innate bias towards trust. Why? Well, because at the end of the day, trust is crucial to our daily functioning in society. And however irrationally driven our trust placed in someone may be, for the most part, it serves us well. For instance, I trust my local tea shop will serve NOT poison my ‘hot honey lime tea’. Thanks to this, I get through that transaction on auto-pilot, twice daily, without any anxiety.

But then came the pandemic. And everything we trusted in, went for a toss. Now when I want to get that cup of honey lime tea, I wonder where the servers have been. Have they sanitized their hands, their equipment, and all surfaces? Can I really trust them with that? Now I have learnt – through strong negative reinforcement – that buying this cup of tea might just lead to me being infected with Covid19 and potentially dying.

Credit: Ben Jennings

Now, trust and its skeptical sister ‘distrust’ are both in the frame just as prominently. And while pre-pandemic too, distrust on a day-to-day basis did help in self preservation (e.g. not opening an email from a Nigerian prince), now the status of distrust has been elevated in the pandemic context – distrust might just save your life. For instance, in low-trust countries like Romania, people stayed home and practiced social distancing not due to government directives to do so, but because they did not trust the decrepit health system to treat them if they did get Covid-19 (3).

What’s more, it’s not like trust has played a significantly positive role in curbing the spread of Covid-19. Even in high-trust countries like the Nordics, where governments spoke about an ‘intelligent lockdown’, ‘treating adults like adults, not kids’ and ‘freedom under responsibility’, cases did rise considerably raising doubts about their approach. Probably due to residents being lulled into a sense of safety stemming from inherent trust in the government, local institutions and one another (3). Additionally, illusions of trust were shattered such as when most European countries closed borders to Italy, triggering a sense of betrayal among Italians towards the EU.

On a day to day basis, there is a fine combination of trust and distrust that helps us get through the day without significantly putting ourselves at risk. The problem is that the world has been hit hard on the trust front, and distrust is gaining more steam in today’s times. With so much fake news, political drama, U-turns on what Covid-19 is / is not, what to do / not do, it’s become rather difficult for people to trust. Be it in terms of trusting one another, trusting experts, trusting governments or even global institutions like WHO. Not just that, but the pandemic has also laid bare inequalities between social cohorts based on race, class, caste, religion and more, triggering a sense of in-group and out-group and furthering distrust.

Trust is a social capital, the elixir on which society functions. Authorities are now scrambling to identify ways to boost trust. Saving the world by building trust sounds like a massive problem to solve. So, let us start small.

McCann’s Truth Central Unit’s fifth wave of the ‘Truth About Culture and Covid-19’ (4) study observed how there is an ‘immense opportunity’ for brands to fill the voids left by unprepared governments and untrusted information sources given that 81% of people globally believe that brands have the power to make the world better. So, what can brands do?

1. Start by understanding what trust is. Don’t mistake ‘reliance’ for trust

Trust is much richer, an admirable quality, a virtue, something to be aspired for. Reliance is simply predictability, a shallower rhetoric, a quality that is positive but not quite as admirable. When consumers rely on you, it is relatively more transactional. There would be no grief should your brand not be around for them anymore tomorrow, and consumers will move onto the next available option. But when consumers trust in you, the feeling is a lot richer. Should you be gone, there will be grief, heart-felt obituaries would be in order.

So, aspire to be trustworthy, not just reliable. I rely on my pair of Skechers to help me run a long distance. But do I ‘trust’ Skechers? Not so much. I would say I trust Nike much more with running shoes.

2. Start ‘brand trust’ tracking (5)

Being trustworthy can be a differentiating quality in today’s times where trust is the new battlefield. Tracking awareness, brand preference, usage and attitudes, brand perceptions and the likes is useful but tracking brand trust can help you get a surer sense of the strength of consumers’ relationship with you. Certain measures such as brand equity, brand love and the likes do somewhat tap into this, but a more direct measure is important in current times. In fact, a British Council Report suggests that trust is robustly related to economic growth. A fifteen percent increase in trust, can drive a one percent increase in growth, on an average.

3. Be transparent, honest and make promises you mean

Trust is driven by both – competency and integrity. However, in the scheme of things, it is still easier to forgive mishaps stemming from lack of competency, than due to a lack of integrity. Consumers can go back to trusting a brand if it makes up for its lack of competency (e.g. bettering a product, actively taking measures to ramp up efforts to deliver on their promise). However, trust lost due to dishonesty is considerably harder to win back. In a study by Edelman, 56% of consumers surveyed felt that too many brands use societal issues as a marketing ploy (6). Essentially, that brands are not honest enough in their intent. Purpose-washing will not cut it. What is needed instead is transparency, honesty and genuine attempts to deliver on promises made.

Are there more pointers you can think of to help guide brands to inspire more trust and offset distrust? Help me add on to this, and save the world (!)




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