Beware the Trust Trap

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had quite a busy week, what with one thing or another.

So in this post, I’m going to write about something completely uncontroversial:  Sir Jimmy Savile.

­­­OK, not just about SJS (or ‘JS’ as he will surely be known before too long).  No, I want to talk about the broader notion of Trust which was at the heart of that horrific scandal.

For, leaving aside the terrible human damage inflicted, it’s pretty clear that the events uncovered by Operation Yewtree have severely damaged our Trust in some pretty major institutions, from Stoke Mandeville to Broadmoor and, above all, the BBC.  Meanwhile, the ‘T’ word has also been central to most of the other big stories of the last year, from Leveson to Hillsborough, Plebgate to tuition fees.  And it has been similarly omnipresent in the commercial world, from corporate tax evasion to banking bonuses and from data privacy concerns to burger DNA.

Given this recurring theme, it should be fairly uncontroversial to state –as some commentators have done – that Trust is the defining issue of our times.  But is it really?  I mean, obviously, organisations need a certain level of it, just to compete.  (Especially these days, when any corporate wrongdoing is so easily exposed and spread online).   But most brands do not have shell-suited pederasts, bent coppers or ‘phone hackers to worry about.  Most have decent corporate policies – not perfect, but scarcely malevolent either.  Likewise, most have reasonable Trust ratings – not sky-high, perhaps, but not rock-bottom either.  Integrity is therefore an essential hygiene factor, rather than a differentiator, in many markets.

So despite my good intentions, I’m going to be a bit contrary, and argue that Trust isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, I’ll go further and suggest that it can sometimes be actively unhelpful, as it can lull organisations into a false sense of security, based on the past, while blinding them to the challenges they will need to face in future.

There’s some empirical evidence, for this apparently counter-intuitive assertion, to to be found in a large study conducted by the IPA In 2008 (‘Marketing in the era of accountability’).   This piece of research found that Trust was actually relatively poorly correlated with success.  In contrast, measures of brand Fame (such as salience, momentum and authority) were significantly more predictive of commercial gain.

But on a more recent note, the notion can also be discerned in one of this year’s other big themes: the travails of High Street ‘favourites’ such as Jessops, HMV and Blockbusters.  All of these brands probably had excellent ratings when it came to Trust.  They no doubt featured in league tables on the subject (such as Which?’s list of Britain’s Most Trusted Brands, which was topped in 2012 by struggling retailer M&S).  Management probably congratulated themselves on the high levels of ‘latent goodwill’ they enjoyed because of it.  But the companies seem to have luxuriated for so long in this warm bath of reassurance that they didn’t notice the cold showers coming their way.

Anyway, like I say, I’m obviously not suggesting that Trust is unimportant.  As the old saying goes, it is hard won and easily lost.  It needs to be nurtured and earned through action.  But, in isolation, it can also be dangerous.  Precisely because it is so comforting, it can create a barrier to change.  Unpopular though it may be to say it:

Sometimes, Trust can be a Trap.

  • Mark Griffiths

    Good argument. Trust can be a trap if you’ve built up a brand that prioritises it (banks), or exudes it (Savile). Or, if you’re complacent (HMV) or just caught like a rabbit in the headlights (Blockbuster). But, as you say, Trust doesn’t really ever exist in isolation. And let’s not confuse it with Respect. Or Honesty. There are also other ways to define ‘success’ than in monetary terms.

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