How Can Business Leaders Restore Trust in the Age of Distrust?


Key Shared Insights & Perspectives

The forces reshaping the global economy are moving our business world of transactions to a business world of relationships.

In this new context, trust has become critical to building and sustaining those relationships.

For that reason, John Hagel stresses, “Trust is a topic that should be front and center for all business people.”

What is Really Behind Our Distrust of Brands?

Trust is eroding for our 20th century institutions, which have been overfocused on profits and minimizing costs to drive scalable efficiency.

When people face constant performance pressure with intensifying competition and accelerating change, anxiety kicks in. As a result, we lose our ability to trust.

When we promote individuals over groups in our institutions, the world is threatening and fear is the instinctive response.

Dan explains, as long as “our belief system prioritizes individuals versus community” and relies on authority and power, we are doomed to distrust each other - because we’re just in it for ourselves.

When we invest in building relationships and communities, the fear factor surrounding change decreases.

Also, in light of emerging societal values, trust is intimately linked to authenticity.

Customers are savvy and well-aware of self-serving corporate tactics such as extracting data for the sole benefit of the organization. Michelle adds that, due to our current misalignment, “Trust has to be intentional and explicit” to be restored.

How Can We Rebuild Brand Trust?

There is an urgency to address the lack of trust and this challenge represents opportunities for organizations ready to adapt.

One solution to rebuilding trust with consumers is through the expression of vulnerability.

A few years ago, Domino’s Pizza stepped outside the norm by publicly sharing their market research that showcased how much customers disliked their pizza(!).

While exploring what leaders and organizations can do to recreate a trusting relationship with customers, our discussion brought to life four key ideas.

1. Shifting from a Knowing Organization to a Learning Organization

Trust is fostered by organizations that display a learning capability inside and out. It starts with a strong leader who is able to ask the most powerful questions and open to the idea of not knowing. Those institutions will not only be the ones learning faster, but they will also be the ones adapting by building relationships with outside stakeholders and communities.

2. Finding New Ways to Measure

When the conversation turned to KPIs that are traditionally used for evaluating productivity and efficiency, our panel questioned using the same approach in efforts to change and learn and build community, pointing to the risk of collapsing the effort into something controlled, rather than emergent.

Instead of looking for new KPIs to evaluate relationships, trust, or learning capabilities, a different approach is to consider the question: What has to be true?

When we search for what has to be true for relationships to be supported and connected, it offers guidance rooted in the intention of thriving.By looking at the fertile conditions needed for everyone to make their best contribution, we bring great wisdom and inspiration.

3. Moving From Brands’ Self-Serving Stories to Customers’ Narratives

When brands let go of their own stories and understand the power of their clients’ personal narratives, they uncover an opportunity to rebuild trust.

Most organizations are good at telling their stories by describing how they started and why or how they do what they do. However, few brands create an open environment that invites customers to embrace the brand by making their own narratives about opportunities that are meaningful to customers and helping their customers to see the actions they will need to take to address these opportunities.

Apple’s “Think Different” marketing campaign was a call-to-action to a whole generation using computers to express themselves.

4. Making Space for a Sense of Belonging

Finally, in the same way that knowing the formative story of people on our team is a way to create a connection and show respect to each other, brands have to let go of their own story to create space for the narrative that its customers would craft together.

Michelle shared her framework for brands to build trusted relationships. It starts with Contribution to the customers which focuses on features and benefits, followed by Community, Conversation and Co-Creation where we find a sense of identity and belonging.

Finally, for loyalty beyond reason, the brand must offer a Heroic Cause. Some of the most trusted brands are the ones that literally become part of their customers’ identity, like Harley Davidson.


Final Thoughts to Consider

A growing number of surveys around the world highlight the continued erosion of trust in our major institutions. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that only 48% of the U.S. population trusts business as an institution.

This crisis in consumer trust directly impacts brands, which are one of the leading factors in consumers’ purchasing decisions. Why? Brand trust drives loyalty.

We ought to recognize that brand distrust has created emotional wounds and institutions will have to earn back the trust of their customers by showing vulnerability.

It might require brands to demonstrate their willingness through authentic actions and letting go of their control to allow customers to embrace a brand story, make it their own, and achieve a sense of belonging.

In the future, profits will depend more and more on creating thriving communities where individuals can also flourish.

Finally, for a brand to re-establish trust today, two distinct attributes are required:

  1. Competence - delivering on their promise

  2. Ethical behavior - doing the right thing to improve society

As marketers, we invite leaders and brand managers to rethink their clients’ customer relationships and focus on pull-based marketing strategies that promote trust and loyalty.

To dive deeper on some of our panel’s work, we recommend Michelle’s post on shifting from mission-statements to mission-questions as well as John’s articles on Business Models and Trust, and Re-building Trust in Institutions.

You can also rewatch our Pass the Mic episode on Ethical Leadership.