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.


A Trust-based Organization: Bangor Savings Bank

In the talks I give about trust in companies, I nearly always get asked for examples of companies that do it well. And I almost never have a good answer. I can identify plenty of very trustworthy, and trusting, individuals; but I have a much harder time pointing out trust-based organizations.

What do I mean by a trust-based organization? I mean an organization that actively encourages trustworthy and trusting behavior in its employees and with its various stakeholders. 

Why are there many personal examples; but so few corporate?

Unfortunately, the reason for that is very simple.  Fear.  Very few corporate organizations in the United States these days are willing to walk the talk, to put their money where their mouth is. I’m not talking about CSR initiatives: I’m talking about entire organizations that, as an organization, believe in:

  • People who live according to the trust equation, who focus on always being credible, reliable, intimacy-safe, and with low self-orientation;
  • Interactions that are based on respect and listening before giving advice;
  • Approaching problems by being client-focused, collaborative, long-term oriented, and transparent.

I wrote earlier this year about one such possible organization, Pediatric Services of America. Now I’ve got another for you: the Bangor Savings Bank, of Bangor, Maine.

I had the privilege and the pleasure of spending most of a day with about a quarter of the bank’s employees at an annual sales event and pizza / rewards night last week. And it was a sight to see.

This, my friends, is what a trust-based organization looks like. Let me give you some verbal snapshots, some big, some little, no particular order:

  • It’s a blue jeans western-themed event; my host, EVP John Edwards, encourages me to wear my best blues, and matches me;
  • The strategic plan is drenched in trust principles: long-term, customer-experience-based, direct communication, shared cultural values;
  • The annual numbers and the new year’s goals are passed out in local offices: this event is for celebration—of people, of success, and of principles (oh yeah, bonus checks get discreetly handed out too);
  • The event features 8 video profiles of 8 employees chosen as best representing 8 key values of the firm: including customer focus, long-term values, listening, caring and acting in customers’ best interests;
  • For four years, the leadership team has been pounding home a simple message: it is about customer experience, we believe in trust, it is about people, behaviors start with attitudes. All content in the event is anchored in these themes. They really mean their catch-phrase slogan: You Matter More.
  • (It’s worth mentioning the Bank involved another great change agent a few years ago, the making-miracles-in-the-trenches bank consulting firm of St. Meyer & Hubbard; Bangor SB is a feather in their cap)
  • EVP Edwards says, "Our CEO Jim Conlon repeatedly reminds our associates and our clients that: "The only reason we exist is that the people, businesses and organizations in our markets have chosen to do business with us. If you do the right things for the right reasons, good outcomes will ensue." Hear that? He talks of outcomes as results of principled behavior–not as goals per se.
  • These are definitely Mainers, but of a special type: not afraid to emote, and not afraid to directly confront issues. I heard a story about the courage it took to say ‘no’ to a motivated and profitable borrower;
  • I heard about a borrower who walked away from a loan deposit because he changed his mind about the project; the bank, with no need to do so, refunded his deposit.
  • Want to know what long-term and community-focused means? At Bangor SB, it means “we invest in these communities because we want our children to have good jobs in this state—it’s personal.”
  • The quote that opens and closes the strategic plan: “Customer experience is the reason we are here, it is everything.”
  • Edwards says, "We have learned that defining the customer experience is an organic exercise – our culture and personality is embedded within our own colleagues and we can best learn from each other. We must constantly strive to get better as there are always ways to improve.
  • You want numbers? The bank is beating its competitors on key metrics—market share, loan losses, growth in assets.

These are people who are passionate, engaged, profitable, and making a difference in their lives and those of their communities. If I had to boil it down to one thing, it is this: the consistent application of a core set of trust principles to all the bank’s affairs.

The fascinating question it raises is: why can’t won’t other companies do this?