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Marcus Mitchell
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Post-Truth brands

Strong brands are built on truths, which need to shine and resonate ever harder in a post-truth world.

Trust collapse

The decline in trust and ever-growing cynicism in public and private institutions is on a long-term downward trajectory and has become a worldwide, systemic challenge for anyone who communicates.

The stories and scandals that are creating this climate are endless:

  • the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
  • the information cold war from ISIS recruitment on social platforms, cyber attacks on power plants and health services to the Salisbury nerve gas attack.
  • the election of Trump and the Brexit vote by ‘alienated’ majorities.
  • the Facebook data breach and data privacy debate.

The list continues and will continue to grow. It is so self-evident that there seems little need to give a list. And that is the point, it has become the norm. The acceptance of ‘post-truth’ into the vernacular (Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016) suggests the phenomenon has reached a tipping point.

This is supported by hard data like the Edelman Trust Barometer (a worldwide survey of trust which has been conducted annually for almost two decades). Results consistently show year after year trust in institutions around the world being below 50 percent – ‘the majority doesn’t trust you’.

This breakdown in trust is reinforced by a growing gap in trust between opinion formers, who are maintaining significantly higher levels of confidence compared to the general public around the world.

The mistrust mindset

A widespread collapse in trust means that the way consumers and electors are making choices and decisions around the world has changed. Claims and facts are easily dismissed and institutions are actively distrusted and rejected out of hand. This ‘mistrust mindset’ is becoming embedded into societies around the world at all levels. It applies everyone. Businesses as brands, employers, suppliers, partners and stakeholders in the wider community are amongst the institutions which have lost trust.

While trust collapse is greater in many cases for the media, public institutions and politicians, businesses are not immune and to treat the trust collapse as simply an opportunity for business to take the high-ground in trust, is missing the deeper challenge created by the mistrust mindset.

Actively building trust

Rather than working harder and investing more in existing communications models, actively building trust means approaching any communications opportunity from the point of view of having to earn the trust of the audience, rather than assuming your reputation or relationship will open the door to the attention you are seeking from that audience. The receptiveness may not be there or the mistrust mindset ‘barriers’ may come down.

To address this, planning any communication should anticipate what might be disbelieved or not taken at ‘face value’. It puts more pressure on creating authentic content and delivering through dialogue and engagement, rather than just posting or transmitting.

Digital – Problem or Solution

Digital is inextricably tied to mistrust. While it is certainly part of what has caused the trust collapse and the rise of the mistrust mindset, it is equally part of the solution.

Digital evangelists have been talking for years about the potential of ‘distributed trust’ and technology like Blockchain to obviate the need for institutional trust. This is clearly utopian, with the reality of Facebook channelling fake news, Russian bots skewing Twitter, takeovers of Wikipedia pages etc. verging on the dystopian.

On the other hand digital can and must play a role in generating trust in transactions, online community interactions and social proof, transparency in procurement, contracts and record keeping.

It’s certainly not the panacea for the mistrust mindset that the evangelists might have hoped for, but its power and pervasiveness in our lives and societies makes it an essential part of any solution.

Trust in what?

What trust is and its benefits are intuitively obvious, but very abstract.

Conceptually it is faith in the delivery of future outcomes. It’s the oil that lubricates many parts of a healthily functioning of any society, for example consider how trust in banks works - it prevents bank runs, which in turn prevent financial collapses.

Tackling mistrust requires focus and insights. Why?

General confidence about the future is not the business of business. This type of trust is the provenance of philosophers, religions and (arguably) governments.

The trust businesses require works in specific areas and contexts. Think of FedEx in reliable delivery and McKinsey in commercial expertise.

The key to building trust comes from finding insights in these specific areas about what a brand or business needs to be trusted for; what will create confidence; and how to overcome cynicism. These become what you talk and shout about, rather than just asking to be trusted. They are also likely to be important points of competitive differentiation, which can strengthen positioning and reputation more broadly.

Breaking down trust to overcome mistrust

Focusing on the type of trust that matters to your brand and particular audience can be complemented by considering how and when to reach them.

  1. Map out all the dimensions of trust for your brand or business.
    • What are and aren’t you trusted for. Why?
    • What is it essential you are trusted for?
    • What would it be desirable to be trusted for?
    • What don’t you need to be trusted for?
  2. Identify your trust sources.
    • How can you create and improve trust?
    • What stories, experiences, images, tone of voice, facts and evidence can you use?
  3. Plan the trust journey. Rather than thinking about a point of communication, look at the audience you want to reach over time.
    • What are the channels and opportunities that will help to build the type of trust you need to establish? And overcome cynicism?
    • What and how should you communicate at different stages of the journey? In what ways does this depend on the level of knowledge and engagement of the audience?

Trust isn’t enough

Overcoming the mistrust mindset and building trust creates permission (e.g. to consider you, your business or brand as a credible option), but in itself it doesn’t necessarily persuade. Being trusted for X, Y and Z may be an important part, but not the complete proposition needed to convince or sell.

Naturally sharpening that overall proposition is critical. It will become a promise setting expectations in the minds’ of your audience. In turn delivering your promise will build trust in your business or brand, creating a virtuous, self-reinforcing circle of experience and communications.

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