Trust 101: #1 Trust is about people and relationships

Trust plays an important role in most of our lives, but it is a complex subject to think about critically and express in ways that others can relate to. For most, it is something that is practiced every day, largely unconsciously, in important relationships with others. Critically, trust is conferred between people, individuals or organised groups.

This is quite a basic statement but an important one of definition. In my decade of studying and operationalising trust (more correctly trustworthiness), it is rare to meet anyone outside of the academic community who can properly define trust. This may well be because of the individual nature and role that trust plays in our lives. We are all predisposed to trust or distrust in different ways.

However, I am inclined to think that a key source of this confusion is the result of consumerism, and how marketers have co-opted “trust” for their use in marketing and brand management campaigns. We often hear about “trusted brands” or “trusted products” and award ceremonies lauding the #1 Trusted Brand in a sector or country. Applying trust in this way is fundamentally “untrustworthy” in itself.

Misappropriating trust, particularly with reference to goods for sale exploits the gaps in most people’s understanding of what trust really is. You can have confidence in an object offered for sale, in its quality and fitness for purpose. You do not, or should not, have to have positive expectations about its intentions or behaviour, especially without having to monitor or control such. Naturally, goods do not have intentions and their “behaviour” is as per a stated function. Any uncertainty about a product is mediated by your choices, your experiences, and the risks attached are usually restricted to the purchase price and not much beyond that. The higher the purchase price the more the risk and the greater the need to manage that risk through knowledge. Looking at reviews, taking into account recommendations of those close to you etc.

Trusting brands is a slightly different matter, since brand images can symbolise a company itself, the group of people that make up the organisation. However, for the most part, brand trust is about objects (products) that represent a brand. The brand can also be thought of a shortcut, a way of guiding choices, expressing quality and reliability in an intuitive (fast) way. In some ways a brand functions much in the same way as trust. But in serious works on branding, trust is at best a related concept. Take for example the work of Kevin Lane Keller, the E. B. Osborn Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. One of his most famous works, The Brand Report Card, is a serious academic work with practical application in organisations. “Brand Trust” is nowhere to be seen.

There is no standard definition of brand trust, but Chaudhuri & Holbrook (2001) defined it as, “the willingness of the average consumer to rely on the ability of the brand to perform its stated function.” Brand trust is actually confidence, the “belief that future events will occur as expected.”
Trust is about relationships with people, a decision to trust someone will always have some element of risk and uncertainty and vulnerability. That decision is based upon your perception of another’s trustworthiness. Is that person competent, caring, fulfilling promises and reliable? Will that person act in the way they say they will without you having to always check on them or even control their behaviour in some way?
Developing genuine elements of trustworthiness is part of a structured approach to being viewed by others as trusted.

As Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung. “Three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end, without trust we cannot stand.”

Confucius’ thought still convinces.

Andrew Roberts

Author Andrew Roberts

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