Ever more rare and critical,
trust is the new currency
by Siddhant Lahiri
Head - Strategic Planning, Mumbai
Why do we buy brands? Why do we spend extra and pay a premium to buy a product that has a brand name plastered on its surface?
Simply put, brands imply an assurance of quality and of reliability. In other words, a brand stands for trust. If I have paid a premium and purchased a branded product, instead of buying an unbranded one from the local market, it is because I trust the brand to deliver value and experiential satisfaction in a better, more durable way.
However, recent studies show that this kind of thinking may be the hallmark of a bygone era. Increasingly, consumers are losing trust in brands. A recent global study conducted by Y&R shows that trust in corporations and brands has declined by over 50 percent worldwide since 2001. In fact, consumers considered only 25 percent of brands trustworthy by 2013.
Let that figure play in your mind for a while—25 percent. That means that a consumer trusts only one-in-four brands. Conversely, the consumer has no trust in three-out-of-four brands. Now that’s a scary thought for any marketer. This trend now is increasingly visible in India, too.
Trust has always been key in the Indian market. The only difference is that earlier trust percolated down from figures of authority. That is why we would happily trust figures we look up to—doctors, actors, sportsmen—and unquestionably buy whatever they endorsed. Hence, the role of trust in brand building is not necessarily a new phenomenon.
What is a new development, however, is the relationship consumers now have with trust. Trust is outstripping many other virtues to become the primary value the consumer is concerned about. In a world where trust is falling rapidly, it becomes the new currency: increasingly rare and increasingly important.
From consumer to communities
This is partly because the environment in which all Indian corporations function today is rapidly changing. As in the rest of the world, huge volumes of cross-channel media clutter, with one competitive claim on top of another, has created an audience less willing to trust the big companies. The “Big Bad Corporation” is struggling with being trusted in India now too. The sentiment has shifted from the earlier, “I’m a brand—trust me,” to, “I know I’m a brand, but please trust me anyway!”
In today’s open, interconnected world, information to build or erode trust travels faster than anything else, irrespective of which corner of the world the brand lives in. For example, recent events have ensured that Indians are wary of United Airlines because of news reports and social media about an incident of passenger mistreatment. And to think that the brand that has no presence in India! Conversely, Xiaomi, with no previous presence of its phones in Indian market, sold out its entire inventory within hours of its first-ever launch in an online flash sale a couple of years ago. Trust is increasingly becoming delicate and ephemeral—difficult to gain, easy to lose, but armed with make-or-break power.
Today, brands don’t have consumers—they have communities. Rather than just a collection of individuals who have purchased a brand, consumers today are an influential, aware, savvy collective who will rally behind a brand—or tear it to shreds. The power has shifted from brands to communities of consumers, and all communities thrive on trust.
The role of trust is reflected in the way the new India transacts. We are now jumping into cars with strangers, ordering food from restaurants we have never heard of, and living in the spare bedrooms of people we have never met in faraway locations. And we are comfortable doing these things because that stranger or the restaurant has five stars next to the name, and because there is a logo somewhere on the screen which I have faith in. There is, therefore, far more at stake today than simply buying a product. This is a world that is literally moving on trust—no wonder trust is gaining in importance and brands are fighting hard for it.
Rise of authenticity
Trust automatically corresponds to authenticity in our minds. Irrespective of what business you are in and what you produce, authenticity and honesty are admirable values, and lead to building trust. This is visible globally with the rise of companies like (the aptly named) The Honest Company, which promises healthy home and baby products. Even in India, products which would earlier have played generically on taste and health are today abandoning those platforms and going out of their way to position themselves on contents and authentic ingredients.
It is almost as if they want to look the consumer in the eye, show what lies within, and ask the consumer for their trust. Raw Pressery makes a huge show of being about “The fruit… and nothing else.” Britannia insists on stressing that there is no maida (bleached flower) in its biscuits. Khadi (personal care) and FabIndia (handmade products) go to great lengths to demonstrate fair trade and ethical sourcing. The share of your wallet will come later. Through authenticity, these brands are first appealing for your respect and trust.
We all live today in a Brave New World. A world where people line up for hours to buy the next Apple product without even experiencing it. A world where a small startup can stand on the shoulders of its community and give giants a run for their money. A world where massive global brands can be torn down with the power of a video clip gone viral. This is a world that is arguably run on trust. Therefore, it is not enough today to push your product out there. Given the way media is exploding, exposure is easy. What is difficult is to get the consumer to trust you. And that trend is here to stay.
Brand Building Action Points
1. Walk the talk
Trust is built on actions. Show that you are trustworthy through your actions. McDonald’s does not make any lofty claims about being the most healthy or nutritious of food sources, but by recently becoming open about its recipes and ingredients, McDonald’s shot to the top of many trust surveys across the world. Similarly, when Tata Tea insists on giving 49 percent of its jobs to women, that is an action that creates ripple effects. Show who you are through your actions.
2. Be transparent
Live up to your claims—and hide nothing, even failures. The Samsung CEO’s recent admissions about the need to improve after the Galaxy Note 7 debacle is a refreshing and applause-worthy expression. Similarly, Airtel managed to earn trust, respect, and subscribers when it recently became an open network, willing to share details about its workings with consumers. There is simply too much information out there today to try and cheat consumers. Consumers respect honesty.
3. Be relevant
It is important to interact with the consumers in relevant ways if you want to gain their trust. See the way Chinese mobile brands have flooded the Indian media. Be it Vivo sponsoring the Indian Premier League or Oppo sponsoring the Champion’s League, these Chinese smartphone brands have successfully used cricket to entrench themselves into Indian culture. In one sweep, these brands have managed to get the recognition and trust which would ordinarily have taken years, simply by engaging with their target audiences in a dynamic, visible, and relevant way.
4. Be consistent
In a world where technology is democratized and media exposure is increasingly easier, trust also comes from consistently performing year on year, product on product, in a stable way. That is why Indians will wait every year to see what OnePlus brings with their annual offering, because of a consistent history of launching excellent and affordable smartphones.