Faith vs experience: Building trust in the digital age


Collective experience is the dominant force in building trusted brands today, writes Sanjay Nazerali, Global Head of Strategy at Carat.

This article first appeared on M&M Global, 21 September 2015. Click here for the original post.

Not a day goes past when the headline news doesn’t include a breach of trust from a company, institution, celebrity or organisation. Interviews with CEOs of multinational companies regularly reveal that building and maintaining trust with customers is top of their concerns. Why is this?

It’s because trust underpins business value.

Trust has always played a critical role in business success, but in different ways. In the pre-media age, people trusted the church, state and monarchy. Business could leverage this trust through lobbying or creating laws.

Then we moved into the mass media age. As competition increased, business created brands in order to differentiate. Brands built trust through advertising, usually identifying a USP and dramatising this in a piece of TV, radio or print creative. As the world saw a general trend towards secularisation, and indeed as news media started to expose institutional secrets, people started to trust brands more than institutions.

In 2009, the global banking crisis happened. The collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank signified one of the biggest breaches of trust in modern time. This alone would have had huge repercussions, but it happened at the exact time when social media was coming of age, and people started having conversations at scale. This failure of banking institutions and rise of social media precipitated another dramatic shift in the dynamics of trust.

It’s more difficult for brands than ever to play a meaningful role in the consumer conversation.

Today, in the digital age, trust in both institutions and brands continues to decline. From the Tesco horsemeat scandal in the UK, to the BP Deepwater disaster off the coast of the US, to politician expenses scandals, breaches of trust are not only everywhere, but are widely discussed in person and on social media.

Businesses can’t hide behind brands or corporate entities any more. Today’s consumers are savvy and only a few clicks away from finding information about a company, from board members’ investments, to political affiliations, to work practices and so on.

All of this leads to a complex and contradictory world for brands. It’s more difficult for them than ever to play a meaningful role in the consumer conversation that’s determining their fortunes. But if they get it right, the relationships they build can be deeper and more sustainable (read: profitable) than ever.

Yes, widespread concerns exist over privacy and use of data; but, at the same time, consumers demand personalisation and relevance. Mistakes and flaws are easily exposed; but they can also drive forgiveness and understanding if dealt with properly.


So how can a brand truly connect amongst all this complexity? To understand this, we need to look at how trust is formed.

Trust is formed in one of two ways:

1. Faith – trusting something or someone because I believe it to be true. For example: I trust the news on the radio. This is faith. I can only know what’s happening politically in a foreign country because of this – I haven’t experienced it for myself.

2. Experience – trusting something or someone because I know it to be true. I trust that the bus will get me to work on time if I leave at exactly 8.40 in the morning. This is from my own knowledge and experience.

Now going back to the way trust is built for brands, there is a total shift in the balance between faith and experience. In the mass media age, faith was the dominant force. Brands built themselves on faith, often using metaphors for experience.

Airbnb had zero logo recognition for years and no global head of brand until it was eight years old. That didn’t hinder its meteoric impact.

Now, in the digital age, collective experience (what we know) is the dominant force. People share experiences at scale; and this is why consumer reviews, search, social commentary, and influencers are all growing in importance. What was once deemed as – at best – mid-funnel campaign activity is increasingly becoming the most critical part of all, because of social media.

And as well as social media sharing and amplifying experiences, technology enables us to replicate experiences virtually – looking around a hotel room, finding the perfect property, experiencing the interior of a car.

Collective experience is the dominant force in building trusted brands today. New brands win purely through this strategy. Airbnb had zero logo recognition for years and no global head of brand until it was eight years old. That didn’t hinder its meteoric impact. Similarly, PayPal spent a decade generating positive user experiences before it considered ‘traditional’ brand communication. For eBay, TripAdvisor and Etsy, collective experience precedes faith.

This shift is seismic. It means that marketing must migrate its focus away from the symbols which create faith, such as meerkats, sloths and labrador pups. Instead, we need to focus increasingly on creating and scaling collective experience. Media is where we can do that. It is media where we can harness technology, such as Augmented Reality, to create the collective consumer experiences which underpin brand success today.


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