Is “Brand Trust” An Oxymoron?

I’ve long meant to write about trust and branding. I don’t pretend to have the last word on this subject, but I don’t think the first words have said enough yet.

What triggered this article was several conversations with Steve Cranford at Whisper, and in particular, his recent post on great branding through through truth-telling.

What’s the difference between trust and branding? Or are they the same? Is Brand Trust an intuitively meaningful term? Or an oxymoron?

My answer is, “It depends.” The harder question is answering the follow-up: “On what?”

I have argued that the predominant sense of the word “trust” is personal, not institutional. My frame of reference is not dictionaries but real world usage.

But if it is true that trust is personal and not institutional,  doesn’t that mean that branding can’t be very trust-powerful, because it doesn’t deal in the interpersonal? Branding is mainly about an individual relating to an institution, a company, a product. Not a person. In fact, the reason the term “personal brand” caught on as a term is that it feels like an oxymoron, a paradox, a conflation—and we are intrigued by such formulations.

But hold on a minute.  Let’s consider branding in terms of the Trust Equation: a mix of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation.  Just because branding doesn’t employ all of the elements of trust,  that doesn’t mean your brand can’t heavily leverage a few components and arguably out-trust an individual.

What does the brand McDonald’s imply? For one thing, reliability. Huge, massive levels of reliability regarding the things you put into your body, the places you interact with people to buy those things, and the consistency of experience. You know what you’re going to get at McDonald’s, and are rarely, rarely disappointed.

That’s worth a helluva lot. And on one critical element of trust, arguably that level of reliability—at least in the sense of being predictable—is as powerful as reliability exhibited by a friend.

Take another trust component—credibility. How much more will you pay for Poland Spring than for a store chain’s house brand? A fair amount. But how much will you pay for the latter compared to an un-labeled bottle of water sold by a street vendor? Massively multiples more, because credibility is something we care about when our health is at stake, and the credibility of a retail chain vastly exceeds that of street vendors when it comes to the life-sustaining fluid that is water.

On the face of it, the other two elements of the Trust Equation—intimacy and self-orientation—are inherently personal attributes, not corporate or product-related. We don’t share our feelings with a brand, or worry that our brand is self-focused and not paying enough attention to us. That would be silly.

Or would it?

Cranford argues that "telling the truth—authenticity—is one more requirement of effective branding."

What he’s getting at—as I see it—is revealed in Cranford’s definition of branding: "defining why you are, so that you become the only logical choice for what you offer."

I think Cranford is on to something. We often speak of branding as an objective characteristic of a product or service offering, or as the subjective experience of customers presented over time with that product or service offerings.

But people don’t “trust” products. They don’t “trust” service offerings. They trust people. As Cranford notes, 75% of the American people don’t trust advertising or advertisers.

But they do trust people. So, the real question becomes: do we or do we not trust the people behind the brand? Do we believe in the integrity of the organization putting out the product or service? Do those people in that company really believe what they say? Do they mean for their product to serve us? Or could they just as well be in currency trading or reinsurance as well as whatever they’re doing, because they’re just in it for the money?

That makes sense to me. In the traditional, personal sense of trust, I trust a brand because of what I believe about the people branding it.

If you’re sufficiently old, you’ll remember, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star—the big, bright, Texaco star.” Not anymore. And not for lack of money spent on branding gasoline. But because we no longer believe we can "trust our car" to the people running, say, Chevron (or Exxon). Station owner? Maybe. Company? I don’t think so. Strong brand? Yes. Trusted? Not so much.

But, Enterprise Rent-a-Car? Yes to both questions. Starbucks? Pretty much so, still, despite growing pains.

Branding may be the social version of the individual connection we call trust. It’s accesibly meaningful in narrow senses like reliability. And, it can have that personal meaning when it comes to the authenticity and trustworthiness of those behind the curtain—the ones charged with delivering the brand.

Those are my thoughts. Ad and PR people? Branding people? Psychologists? Coaches? Marketers? Or just armchair theorists—what do you all think?

8 replies
  1. Jim Monk
    Jim Monk says:

    Starbucks seems to be a brand in the midst of working to reestablish trust in it.  In the attempt to reap benefits from the name, the stores proliferated a variety of products crowding their shelves and counters — egg muffins, sandwiches, do dads, etc — that, as it turns out, led to a loss of credibility and confidence in the brand.  Now the original founder of Starbucks is back at the helm and he is jettisoning all the edge items to refocus on what Starbucks does best:  make and sell great cups of coffee. 


    They tried to have us believe, trust, them with a whole bunch of trinkets and found out that trust spread thin wears out.  So brand  trust probably has a limited breadth of coverage.  We may trust the Corvett brand, but to trust all of GM would be a stretch.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charles,…you write " Cranford argues that "telling the truth—authenticity—is one more requirement of effective branding."

    For me, the experience of relating to another exudes trust when the other is open, honest, authentic, credible and reliable. I will trust that other when these qualities are present (as I well expect them in myself)…and won’t when they’re not. My loyalty to my partner/wife, a few neighbors, a few colleagues, a few relatives , etc. rests on trust.

    My loyalty to brands, in this sense, also relates to my past or recent experiences with individuals who represent that brand…why I’m loyal to CostCo but not to P***** Supermarket; why I’m loyal to Petsmart but not to one of their competitors; why I’m loyal to my local dry cleaners but not to my local car dealership; why I’m loyal to my own spiritual teacher and coach but not to my local church; why I’m loyal to my computer tech compoany but not to my local real estate agency (we’re searching for a new one) 

    It’s not about the brand, for me, but the individual (s) with whom I come into direct contact who happen(s) to work for that brand. They’re the determining factor of my loyalty.

  3. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    The trust can extend to the institution as well, in a roundabout way.

    You say you might lose your trust if the people behind the company are "just in it for the money" but that can be a source of trust as well.  Customer service, for instance.  Some people buy a big brand name because they trust that not only will the company be there to support the product being purchased, but that they can’t abuse your trust (too much) as they’ll lose business.

    Trust in this sense still relies on a third party – government – especially when dealing with a large brand (due to the power disparity between a large corporation and an individual).  You can rely on the company not wanting a lawsuit.

    The trust nexus here involves the institutional structure of corporation, law, ability to enforce the law (courts provided by and backed up by state power of coercion) and the individual.

  4. zowoco
    zowoco says:

    I don’t agree: here in the UK I think we are extremely brand conscious: we all know we can save money by buying an inexpensive brand but time and again we plump for the most advertised brands. Especially gasoline, but also noticeably pop drinks and cleaning detergents in supermarkets. Baked beans, bread. In many aisles we go for the strongly advertised labels, because to a Briton, a well advertised brand is better than a non-descript brand.


    You Americans may be more savvy than us, but Britons don’t trust people: they don’t trust anyone, that’s a fundamental difference between us. But they do trust television, TV advertising, media advertising and billboard advertising. Britons are extremely susceptible to suggestion. Yet they trust no one, and even the next town are "furriners!"

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Interesting comments! 

    Both Zowoco and Anthony are pointing out extensions of the trust component of reliability.  Anthony’s nexus of institutional structure is a (very well-noted) instance of our ability to depend on certain outcomes; Zowoco’s example of supermarket brand behavior is the same one I cite in store-branded water.  Branding, in those cases, is similar to trust in the narrow sense of dependability, reliability, predictability.

    It is the more personal senses of trust that are generally lacking in branding–except when you take into account the personal motives behind those running the brand. 

    As Anthony points out, there’s a delicious irony in that highly self-oriented people can be depended upon to behave selfishly–which makes them predictable and reliable (no one ever said trust was simple).

    And I love Zowoco’s "we don’t trust furriners" from the next town.  My personal experience is he’s right, at least in degree; Britons are a little more reserved, less inclined to extend trust beyond the town line.  But qualitatively, it’s the same phenomenon Peter Vajda describes–a certain sense of trust only gets extended within a tight circle.

  6. Brian Phipps
    Brian Phipps says:

    This is a very interesting question, and I apologize for being late to the conversation. I might note that every business begins with a default state of trust (and brand) called caveat emptor. Your brand is "buyer beware" until you demonstrate otherwise. "Brand trust" can only be earned, but how it is earned is changing. In the days of traditional brands, many companies employed messaging campaigns that drummed in slogans, symbols and jingles (like that Texaco star) to make a brand so "familiar" that one would trust it implicitly. But those days are gone. Today that approach seems fake.

    But if messaging can’t create a context of trust, what can? "Brand experience" is what today’s customers go by: what the brand delivers. This has put many traditional brands at risk, because they’re so mired in promotional cultures of symbols, slogans and jingles that they can’t deliver the value that customers want. (Airlines might be a good example, and some big consumer brands like Sears.)

    An emergent means of building brand trust would seem to be collaboration, now feasible using digital technologies. In a collaborative brand strategy, the brand becomes a collaboration in context between company and customer, and a shared platform for building brand trust. The company and its customers are on the same page because they are writing it together. This creates all sorts of opportunities for innovation, too. In place of the oppositional "buyer" and "seller," company and customer are jointly solving shared problems through the brand. Teammates can be trusted.

  7. Chris Wadsworth
    Chris Wadsworth says:

    One of the main objective of branding is to build trust with the target audience. People are more willing to engage with someone or something they trust.

    A company or product’s brand is the essence of their promise to their customers. Customers have to trust that the promise will be delivered. They don’t need to know the people behind the scenes but for a brand to be successful it needs that trust. I don’t think that the term ‘brand trust’ is an oxymoron at all because a key reason for forming and nurturing brands is to build trust.


  8. N. Chandramouli
    N. Chandramouli says:

    To understand brand trust, it is important to understand the concepts of Brand and Trust. A Brand is essentially any idea which can be transacted; and it is not limited to a product or service – it could be a concept, idea, city, person.


    On the other hand, Trust is an attitude that needs to be derived (like happiness, it cannot be directly targeted). Typically Trust is made up of 3 major components that include (1) Building capacity to Trust in the audience (2) Showcasing perception of right intention and (3) Showcasing appropriate competence. [These three are further divided into 10 sub-components].


    While your statement that Trust is generated by people is correct, it is because in the metric of Trust, the message and the messenger are considered equivalent. However, Brand Trust is not an oxymoron, but instead the two words are inseparably intertwined.



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  1. […] importance of a relationship between their brand and their clients. According to a great article Is “Brand Trust” An Oxymoron?, Trust = Reliability + Credibility + Intimacy + Self […]

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