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?