Why We Don’t Trust Corporations

Josh Bernoff asks the “who do you trust” question at the Groundswell blog, based on data from Groundswell.


Here’s the chart he’s talking about.


Bernoff’s discussion suggests:

  1. The best trust is personal
  2. 60% trust reviews by strangers in aggregate, e.g. “If 100 people on eBags say a laptop bag is great, then it is great. If they say it’s inferior, then it is inferior. Regardless of what a so-called "expert" might say.”

Bernoff then goes on to draw some conclusions for brand marketers: basically, if they like you, let them talk. If they don’t like you, you can’t shut them up; but you can listen to complaints and improve your product or service.

Phrased this baldly, it sounds like a massive dose of the obvious. But if it were so obvious, more companies would be doing it. Let’s break this down.

Trust is Personal

First, the idea that trust is personal. In my own work, trust is massively personal at root. Two of the four components of the Trust Equation developed by myself and co-authors Maister and Galford in The Trusted Advisor are overtly personal—intimacy and self-orientation.

Brands, Corporations and Trust

Corporations, brands and advertising are inherently impersonal and by their nature self-oriented; which is why ad campaigns and PR agencies have an awfully tough time when it comes to getting anyone to trust their messages.

Think about it. What are the two most trust-destroying words you can say? I nominate Trust Me.

And if that sounds blindingly obvious, then who developed these ad campaigns?

  • RCA “the most trusted names in electronics”,
  • Value Line “the most trusted name in investment research”, and
  • CNN “the most trusted name in news”.

(Do you think that’s why CNN has just been supplanted as “most trusted” by—of all sources—Fox News?)

How about Bernoff’s other conclusion: when they don’t like you, don’t shut them up, but address the complaint and improve the product?

It is astonishing how infrequently this obvious piece of advice is ignored. Let’s call it the Watergate catch-phrase: the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Think of the iconic Johnson and Johnson response to tampering with Tylenol—ages ago. Why does such an old example of corporate ethical behavior still come to mind? Because it’s so rare. How many pharmaceutical industry kerfuffles since have been dealt with so openly?

Remember Monsanto and Dioxin?

How about the tobacco industry’s continued, chronic response to health concerns?

Remember mad cow disease and the US beef industry’s response?

Rarely is it the first instinct of business to follow Bernoff’s “obvious” advice—to hear consumer criticism as inherently constructive, and to do something about it.

Given that response, is it really so surprising that people trust personal acquaintances more than anyone else? Trust abused is trust destroyed. The biggest reason we trust people we know is that people we know are the ones we can trust.

That’s not circular. It means people we know are more trustworthy than companies who pretend to be. Whose fault is that?