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Trust in the modern marketplace

So you thought that complying with the European Data Privacy Directive - or Data Protection Act (DPA) was enough to make to customer focused and increase your profits? Well, think again, because since the implementation of the DPA, the issue of trust has become a major talking point. Why should we be interested in this now; surely we should always have been trustworthy?

Trust is one of those intangible factors that can make or break your product, brand or company. Intangibility has been difficult for marketers to control, and its value has been underestimated and under-utilised. So trust has been low on the agenda in most marketing plans.

The Internet has, however raised the profile, again - and not a moment too soon. The bad publicity the medium gets is all based on the dubious activities of unsolicited messages, Trojan viruses and spyware. Otherwise reputable companies are falling foul of some of these activities, often unknowingly, as they are led by the technology and invited to use insecure systems.

Brand Trust

In the light of all this, consumer confidence and trust is at an all-time low. The Yankelovich Survey in the US found that only 40% of American consumers trusted the brands they bought regularly (2003). This is an offline survey, but provides some useful insights into the US consumer's perceptions of the products and services they consume. Identity theft, credit card fraud and scare mongering in the press, has left e-business in a poor state.

Consumer Attitudes: Confidence and Trust
Great confidence in:
My own abilities
News reports on TV
News reports in newspapers
News reports in magazines
Recommendations of doctors
Recommendations of travel agents
Salespeople in clothing stores
Federal government
Corp. point of view advert/statements
Used car salesmen

Source: Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown/Yankelovich Partners National Travel Monitor

The only item with lower trust than advertising is used car salesman!

Some of the most dramatic drops in trust, shown in the table above, are with the corporate communications and advertising in general – probably as a result of high profile company failures and fraud, such as Enron, Worldcom, etc. Unfortunately there is no single answer to the question of how a brand can become trustworthy.

Professional associations and accrediting bodies have identified broad guidelines for ethics in marketing. According to the American Marketing Association, the following rules should guide marketing behaviour.

Another approach, suggested by Gary Sain (2003) is far simpler:

According to Yankelovich, 74% of consumers who make $75,000 a year agree that most businesses have completely forgotten the idea that the customer is always right and 86% expect to be treated like their best customer. Building trust is never having to apologise for forgetting who the customer is. It is also doing what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it, delivering what you said you going to do and doing it better than you said you could.

The final point made by Sain, about people buying from people is mirrored in a well-worn quote from a sales manager I once worked for – "People buy from their friends!" Friendship requires an element of trust – less so for an initial purchase, but if your business model requires repeat purchases – trust will go a long way to facilitating this.

Intrusive Marketing

Marketing is becoming increasingly intrusive in our lives, but in many cases this intrusion is an irrelevant interruption. The term 'Trust Buster' has been coined to sum this up. We, as consumers, are better educated and wealthier than ever before. We are also being bombarded by more and more advertising – a recent study showed that the average US consumer sees over 1 million 'adverts' each year. CRM packages attempt to personalise the message, but for most companies, with limited portfolios, you end up with a horoscope approach - you do have a different message, but it can only be one of 12. This is hardly personalisation!

One of the goals of Customer Relationship Marketing systems (CRM) is to make every effort to maximise the personalisation opportunities. Online this means automating the 1-to-1 marketing with all your customers. But the word should give us a clue - PERSONALisation - it is about people, and people have a particular character, personality and rapport - computer systems can match this to an extent, but they cannot do it in isolation.

To illustrate this point, I have taken Michael Porter's Value Chain Model and produced a Trust-focused Value Chain. In this model, it is apparent that a large number of marketing and business activities go into developing trust. It is also no coincidence that trust occupies the 'profit' portion of Porter's model, because being trustworthy is profitable!

Trust-focused Value Chain diagram

The Trust Focused Value Chain (Poole, 2003)


Trust is the current buzzword in business, but it is difficult to measure, and difficult to plan for. Research carried out by Enterprise IG and QCI looked at employee engagement in customer interaction. The results show that if you want to demonstrate trust towards your customers, and receive their trust and respect in return, you need to get your employees on board. Virgin have a well publicised policy of putting their employees first, because satisfied employees are more likely to satisfy customers. The results of the Enterprise IG study are shown below.

Staff Engagement & Advocacy graph

Staff Engagement & Advocacy (Enterprise IG)

If your customers encounter anyone other than a champion, you had better hope that the employee exhibits trust in the company. If the customer already trusts the brand or company, maybe a simple meeting with a less enthusiastic employee won't harm the brand too much, but new customers may never return!

Trust is something that every company should strive for. Without adequate metrics, it will be difficult to track, but as trust is one of the most important building blocks in many other business procedures that can be measured and controlled, trust is a factor that must exist in every company, brand and project.

An interesting analogy is that of the orchestra. An orchestra comprises a large number of individually talented artists who are then grouped into instrumental 'departments' or 'divisions.' These departments play off each other because they understand the intricacies of each other's instrument and parts. The orchestra is made up of many 'departments' each of which has varying degrees of involvement and difficulty in their parts for different pieces of music. Finally, the conductor is there to ensure that the departments work well as a single unit. The customers, listening in the concert hall, trust that the conductor can control the orchestra and deliver the piece they have paid to listen to. Within the orchestra, the various departments need to trust each other to deliver the relevant prompts and their part of the overall sound. Again – we uncover trust as a key element to deliver the promised product to the customers.

About the author

Thom Poole is a Chartered Marketer with the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a member of the Marketing Society. A marketer with over 18 years experience in online marketing and web strategy, Thom is strategic marketing consultant for Jack Marketing Solutions, working with SMEs. He is just about to launch to teach people web design from beginners to professionals. A regular speaker on the CRM and e-marketing event circuit, Thom has also recently written a book on ethical e-marketing, called 'Play It By Trust.' The book is available at the publishers as a hardback or download.

Article first published: CIMTech ezine (September 2004)


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