A Marketing Company that Gets It on Trust

When I think of companies that "get" trust, marketing / advertising / communications / PR companies are not first to my mind. 

For one thing, trust is heavily personal, and marketing companies are largely forced to deal in one-to-many one-way communications. For another, the business can be very much about “the pitch,” and about one’s devotion to one’s creativity more than to the client. Finally, marketing companies are very much subjected to short-term performance analytics, resulting in a lack of emphasis on relationships.

So imagine my surprise—maybe even shock, certainly delight—when I got a call from the good people at Unit7. CEO Loreen Babcock says, “I’ve been thinking about trust for 4-5 years now—but it’s only recently that people seem to ‘get’ what I’ve been saying.”

The emphasis on trust is apparent throughout their website. You know about CRM (customer relationship management); they’ve trademarked TRM (Trust Relationship Management). As they put it, "Trust takes root when consumers feel listened to, deeply understood. ‘My concerns are your concerns.’" Exactly. Exactly.

Unit 7 also "gets" the relationship of collaboration to trust: "The world is changing too fast, there are too many touch opportunities for any single person to have all the answers."  Right again.

Babcock and the staff of Unit7 have also identified the value of empathy in the trust arena. They recognize the power of stories about trust—and have begun collecting them internally and sharing them with the world.

But what makes this different from just another ad spin, from thumbing a ride on the zeitgeist for kicks?

If you believe trust is personal, and that marketing companies need to be trusted by their clients (and their clients in turn by their own ultimate customers), then what can you do? 

Here’s what got me.

Unit7 is doing a campaign on Type 2 Diabetes. They offered the entire office’s staff a chance to participate in a program: to conduct their lives for 14 weeks as if each of them had Type II diabetes. 67% of the team took decided to participate.  Sticking your finger twice a day.  Exercise.  Passing up foods.  Living a life not under your control. 

It was hard. And everyone learned a lot. And everyone came to really understand, at least a just little, what it must be like to suffer from that disease.

The program is described in detail in They Feel Your Pain in BrandWeek. In that article, several marketers, including Seth Godin, criticize Unit7’s venture because "it’s impossible to empathize with someone who has diabetes…it’s disingenous…they can’t know what it’s like to walk everyday in the shoes of someone who could die from this disease." I couldn’t disagree more. The value of empathy in this world is precisely because of our inability to know another’s life directly. To call an attempt at empathy "disingenous" is to suggest there’s no point in my trying to empathize with women, or people of color. Empathy is what gives us a ladder out of our daily existential reality to connect with another unique and different humanoid on the planet. The issue is not whether we can gain total knowledge of another, but simply whether our attempts are sincere.

One of the fundamental principles of trust is that we trust those who we believe understand us. In fact, if we don’t believe they understand us, we don’t trust them. Call this "empathy" if you like. You can also find it in the old sales line, "People don’t care what you know until they know that you care."

This is powerful stuff. Unit7 have figured out that branding and trust need not be incompatible—the key is to trust the people behind the brand. Very much what I was trying to get at a month ago in “Is Brand Trust an Oxymoron.

Kudos to the folks at Unit 7. Doing the trust thing in the real world.

6 replies
  1. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:

    Great article!! I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s. Most of the time he’s right on. This time, however, I think I agree with your assessment that a genuine attempt to empathize with others eclipses any drawback of not living in their particular shoes. How would we feel if someone made an honest attempt to better understand us – in this case, going to the extreme of sticking themselves with a needle twice a day or cutting out certain foods? I think one’s “intent” is what Godin undervalued and what you so eloquently illustrated.

  2. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    I think that what Unit 7 did with respect to their diabetes-related campaign is amazing – and authentic. No, the marketing people can’t "know" what it’s like to have the constant burden of the medical complications, worry about their kids, etc. – but they could certainly gain some awareness of the stresses associated with the routine obligations, constant worry over food choice, deprivation, etc.

    On a much lower plane, when I was a software product manager, I occasionally spent time shadowing customers as they used our products – one time even spending 24 hours on site for a quarterly event. It was quite an eye-opener to see how people were actually using our products – and coping with the feature gaps, user interface issues, etc.

    There is definitely something to be said for the "walk a mile" philosophy.

    I guess I’m sort of surprised that Seth Godin is so down on it.

  3. Brooks C. Sackett
    Brooks C. Sackett says:


    Dear Charlie,

          We need to trust people eventually. Who can we more deeply trust than those who have suffered as we suffer if only temporarily? 

         Thank you, Charlie!


  4. Evan Zall
    Evan Zall says:

    Nice post and I agree with the comments, however I think the subtext of the issue is worth calling out: the new paradigm is not empathy, but transparency.  Just as it is dramatically changing financial and professional services for the better, so communications and marketing follow a similar path.  The combination of clients who buy into full disclosure with online media that is increasingly conversant is transforming marketing into a two-way street that demands a full understanding of clients and the challenges faced by their audiences.

    Basically, you just can’t fake it anymore.  And that’s a good thing.

  5. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Psst. Two of the links in this article are broken:
    – “Unit7” should point at the company website (http://www.unit7.com/) but currently points at an article on this site;
    – The link to the BrandWeek article redirects to the front page of AdWeek. I took a quick look but I couldn’t find the original article online.


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