Redefining Trust

Has truth been eroded in brand comms. And if so, how can we reclaim it? Pippa Arlow, the Global CEO of Smarts, takes a look.

This article is taken from our latest Joined-up Thinking Magazine, which explores what marketers can do to take advantage of the opportunities presented by an industry that, over the past 12 months, has been forced to reinvent itself in a way no-one could have imagined.

Building trust has always been the key achievement of successful brands. At its simplest, we buy things we trust. But in an era where both the notion of truth and people’s confidence in institutions, governments, big corporations and mass media is being heavily undermined, the very notion of trust itself is more challenging than perhaps it has ever been.

The world that we live in grows ever more complex and difficult to comprehend – more voices, more contradiction, more challenge…less certainty. The number of sources of information that we rely on to make our judgements has expanded exponentially and with the boom in unmediated publishing platforms, the inexorable rise of social media that gives everyone and anyone a stage, coupled with the erosion of parts of the mainstream media, previously trusted sources like journalism are no longer seen as the tellers of truth or the mediators.

In fact, quite the opposite. The Trumpian dismissal of any contrary views as “fake news”, the espousal of “alternative facts”, the dismissal of “experts” and the business of targeted disinformation make it very difficult for people to understand, let alone trust, their present circumstances and the world around them.

Some commentators are calling this a “post truth” era. Of course the concept of “post truth” didn’t begin with the 2016 US election campaign; the problem has been with us longer than that. But the mounting overload of conflicting information, catapulted into and coalesced in popular culture is undoubtedly more prevalent than it has ever been.

The scary thing is that increasing numbers of people no longer care whether something is true or not. As long as it fits with their own view of the world or their political leaning, that’s enough for them. They devour messages that reinforce their thinking – and, particularly in the field of politics, unscrupulous communicators have learned precisely how to target the right messages (or disinformation) and wilfully manipulate behaviours on the basis of half or no-truth.

What, then, does this topsy-turvy, anxious world mean for trust and for us in an industry that seeks to create it on behalf of brands?

To answer that, we need to consider two factors. Firstly, why is it so important? Sir John Hegarty, amongst others, points to the notion of trust sitting at the very heart of brand building. As society developed and cities boomed, consumers no longer bought goods just from each other’s neighbours (who they knew and trusted), they began to buy from unknown people and from companies they would never ‘meet’ – so, if someone was to buy something from a stranger, the brand had to be imbued with trust. The product had to do what it claimed, quality mattered.

Secondly, does truth matter anymore? Yes, despite how truth has been eroded, it is still fundamentally the case that without product truths, brand truths and human truths, everything we do in this industry is just marketing bullshit, spin or PR “fluff” – our very own equivalent of “fake news”. We should be immersed in truth. Our job is to find the most important truth about a brand or a product or a company and marry this with the most compelling way to share that truth with the world. The point at which we feel we’re inventing something, stretching something or twisting something is the point at which our work is broken.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment, our industry has an interesting relationship with truth…

There is a reason advertising keeps popping up as one of the least trustworthy professions, there is a reason that social media experts are seen as manipulators, there is a reason that PR professionals are called ‘spin-doctors’. Those perceptions aren’t good enough, and they are a legacy of both agencies and clients not paying enough attention to stuff that really matters, opting instead for easy alternatives of hyperbole, exaggeration and the age-old magic of smoke and mirrors. We’ve made our own bed, but this is no time to lie in it.

Because truth communicated brilliantly is enough to do the job that brands and companies need.

Perhaps not in spite of, but because of the very cultural trend to dismiss trust, it is actually more important than ever. Simple truths, well told, have potency and power.

Post-Trump and, hopefully, post-COVID, we believe that trust will not only retain its power but will have additional currency, exerting an even stronger influence on consumers. That requires us in the PR industry to adapt both the strategic advice and the services that we offer our clients.

That requires us in the PR industry to adapt both the strategic advice and the services that we offer our clients.

Maybe at this time rather than ‘redefining’ trust, our job is in fact to ‘reclaim’ it…

Dig deep for insight:
The best work in our industry is defined by deep truths and insights – into people and product and culture and context. We need to get back to digging for these truths again and not be seduced by superficial ‘quick wins’ or over reliance in things like hyper-targeting to make sure our message reaches the right people. Data needs to be interpreted, assumptions challenged, distinctive approaches birthed and creativity applied. Great ideas are great ideas and at their heart is truth.

Tell honest stories:
People need to trust brands instinctively and the stories a brand tells – simple ones and bigger ones need to be told honestly and compellingly. To get there we need to be disciplined and honest with ourselves, calling bullshit when we veer off track. In a complex, information-ridden world, the work we do should tell honest stories in a meaningful way, and strive for simplicity in its finest sense.

Choose the right channels:
Trust will also depend on our choosing the right channels and sources of information for our target audiences. This calls for diligent, bespoke research into the people, broadcasters, content creators, partners and media that are right for the job. We shouldn’t pander to scale at the expense of integrity. An off-the-shelf media list is too blunt a tool to find the right advocates to share our stories.

Behave with value:
PR is only spin unless it realises that a brand is not just what it proclaims itself to be. In an era where facts and institutions are mistrusted, how a brand acts and how it makes people feel are paramount. Consumers experience a brand through a full range of interactions – through how the brand communicates, how it behaves in society and how it performs for the consumer. While the wild excesses of purpose-driven brands are largely behind us, a new more grounded and, dare I say, honest approach to purpose is emerging – if a brand can show an authentic, measurable commitment to its purpose then that counts. If they can’t it defeats the very purpose to begin with.  

The simple truth is there is no easy way to reclaim or rebuild trust in the idea of ‘truth’ itself. It will take all of us to be honest with ourselves, sleeves rolled-up, doing our very best work – but it strikes me that’s a job worth doing.

Pippa Arlow is the Global CEO of Smarts, our award-winning PR & Content agency. An agency that’s just launched in the USA!