Trust, Inc.

Walgreens, the venerable (116 years old, second largest) US drugstore chain, has announced a new tagline as part of a new brand positioning strategy.  No longer will it be “At the corner of happy and healthy” – the new mantra is “Trusted Since 1901.


I wish Walgreen’s nothing but the best, and don’t doubt their good intentions. Nor are they necessarily wrong on the facts. And, Walgreens is hardly alone in wanting to trumpet their levels of trustworthiness, or their trusted relationships with customers.

However, the use of “trust” in corporate branding is problematic on at least three dimensions. Walgreens provides a good opportunity to explain why.

Cognitive Dissonance

I always tell people not to call themselves a ‘trusted advisor,’ and certainly not to incorporate the phrase into their advertising. It’s like saying “humility is my best quality.”

Trustworthiness is something of a virtue, and calling yourself virtuous just explodes the claim. It’s wonderful when other people use trust to describe you or your relationship with them – as long as it’s them saying it. (“Trust me” may be the two most trust-destroying words you can say).

Calling yourself ‘trusted’ is also different from calling yourself innovative, or respected, or high quality. Walgreens might want to take note that none of the ”Top 10 Most Trusted Brands” brands incorporate trust itself into their taglines.

They might also take note of how it’s worked our for “The Most Trusted Name in News,” whose tagline allows Donald Trump a convenient foil.

Risky Business

Claiming to be trusted is a bit like the Gary Hart strategy – daring the press to find otherwise. It’s like a red flag to a bull.

How many people will manage to dig up the fact that Walgreens made a substantial amount of money and growth during Prohibition by selling (legally) whiskey? Or that the pharmacy business managed to quickly carve out a very liberal interpretation of “medicinal purposes” during that period? Sorry, Walgreens, it’s what you’re setting yourself up for.

History aside, stuff happens. Ask BP about oil spills, or the old Union Carbide about explosions. Or, closer to home, J&J about Tylenol redux. Mis-steps are magnified, and stay in the press longer, for those who claim to be trustworthy in the first place.

Corporations are Not People

This is the biggest one. “Trust” is a word with much contextual nuance of interpretation. But one thing we can say for sure: personal trust is richer and stronger than corporate trust.

We trust people on an emotional level. We trust people based on our views of their intentions, their transparency, and their willingness to trust us.

By contrast, corporations’ intentions are usually very much self-oriented; transparency is little-practiced; and rare is the corporation without legal disclaimers governing their customer relationships. That’s not a criticism (well, it is a little bit); but it’s mainly just stating the difference between protein-based and legally-based entities and the ways we trust them.

Most corporate executives would probably agree with this in the abstract – but they ignore the implications in the particular. If they really believed it, they would be spending money on becoming more trustworthy, rather than on PR campaigns to be seen as more trustworthy, or on reputation management to change perceptions rather than underlying reality.

So What’s a Company to Do?

A company that is serious about being seen as trust-based would start by recognizing – it’s personal.

Trust is not created by spin, advertising, PR, or taglines. It is created by the collective personal behavior over time of corporate employees interacting with customers, suppliers and each other.

This means corporate trust is a culture-and-values issue – not a process-and-marketing issue.

A company that is serious about trust will, among other things:

  • figure out how to trust its customers and suppliers, often by taking some form of risk (because trust is reciprocal – we trust those who trust us);
  • invest in customer service by focusing on effectiveness, not efficiency; by using ROI, not budget variances, to measure success;
  • hire, train for, and role-model best practices for interpersonal trust, including emotional intelligence, strict truth-telling, and vulnerability;
  • consistently prioritize long-term, relationship-based behaviors over short-term, self-aggrandizing behaviors, in its compensation and promotion policies;
  • focus on ways to establish deeper relationships with stakeholders, rather than focusing on issues like NDAs, non-competes, or arbitration clauses;
  • make heroes out of people who model trust-based behavior.

We trust those more who do not protest how much we trust them.


3 replies
  1. Barbara Kimmel
    Barbara Kimmel says:

    Hi Charlie- I hope Walgreens (and Grey Advertising) can successfully navigate the murky “trust waters” going forward in an authentic trust elevating manner.

    As you know, we maintain 7 years of data measuring the trustworthiness of public companies (not brand trust.) While no company is perfect, according to our data CVS is a more trustworthy company, and has been for many years. So long-term, Walgreens might choose to elevate organizational trustworthiness. (But that’s a different discussion and certainly not a marketing function.)

    Good news, the new mantra is “Trust since 1901” and if handled properly could be very effective in building brand trust. Walgreens must continually ask themselves, “Trusted to do what?” and be very specific about what stakeholder group they are serving. Let me give you two examples.

    1. Trusted on Price- Hypothetically, Walgreens decides they will underprice CVS on ANY prescription, and use this as an example of “trusted to treat their customers well.” Another customer trust builder (and differentiator) might be to stay open 24 hours, 365 days/week.

    2. Trusted on Treating their Employees Well- Walgreens announces that they will pay their employees a higher hourly wage then their competitors. This would be an example of “trusted to treat their employees well.”

    Their new tagline (and ad series) will fall flat on it’s face if Walgreens (and their agency) fail to understand the authentic nuances of building trust as a brand differentiator.

    • Charles H Green
      Charles H Green says:

      Barbara, thanks for this.

      For those who don’t know, Barbara is founder and CEO of Trust Across America, the best (really the only, as far as I know) database that makes a comprehensive effort to systematically and quantitatively evaluate the trustworthiness of corporations.

      First, thanks for being willing to share the data – interesting, to say the least.

      Second, you are absolutely right about the need to articulate the answer to the question “trusted to do what?” “Trust” in the abstract is just an abstraction. I trust Amazon to deliver books – but not to babysit my grandchild (whether they can make me trust them enough to install an Amazon-only lock on my door is an interesting experiment in how far they can take it).

      Trust requires a concrete object of action to be meaningful. Your specific examples quite rightly draw attention to the need to put action behind proclamation. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Gareth Rice
    Gareth Rice says:

    I studied the issue of corporate social responsibility and trust in Telefonica O2 over recent years. we also examined how big brands like Google Amazon and John Lewis & The Co-op etc, in the UK were perceived by stakeholders. We realised that Trust and Trustworthiness are two different things in stakeholders Perception. Trust is associated with your product; quality delivery service guarantees etc. Trustworthiness relates to how your brand is perceived, & is much more subtle and harder to achieve; success comes in the longer term by positioning your company’s message on the basis of purpose and shared value, and to coin a famous advertising slogan over here in Britain ‘Every little helps!’. By that I mean within O2, marketing comms PR and staff engagement were used widely to broadcast each and every example across the sustainability and ethics spectrum, allowing us to position ourselves as a Trustworthiness leader. And our Think Big Blueprint, (our 3 year public strategy on sustainability) certainly helped with its three big hairy audacious goals underpinned by 40 unique and innovative commitments across the business to back them up, many of them customer-facing.


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