In 2010, I did a TED Talk, titled “Is it Better to be Loyal or Honest?” My talk was based on the idea that humans subscribe to two different systems of ethics, one which supports the smooth functioning of the marketplace, and one which enables the effective authority of a king—or, today, a government.
The important thing to consider from a brand-building point of view is that many large brands must try to adhere to both systems, even though the ethical principles of the two systems are frequently in conflict. This is particularly important when it comes to building trust, because it turns out that the meaning of “trustworthy” changes as a brand becomes more successful, more ubiquitous, and more powerful.
When a new brand enters the marketplace, trust is mostly about honesty: Can the brand actually deliver what it promises? Is the product worth what it costs? If the brand grows big and powerful, different questions arise: Does the company have my best interests at heart, or is it just focused on enriching itself? Is the brand going to use its power to push products (on me, my kids, my neighbors) that it knows are bad for us? At the end of the day, who is the brand actually loyal to?
Trust is a fat word. I trust you to deliver a product or service that is worth what you charge for it means something different from, I trust you to be a force for good. The do-what-you-say kind of trust is easier for consumers to wrap their minds around and easier for brands to measure. The do-what-you-say kind of trust is essential to building a brand of any value in the first place, but it is not enough to sustain that value in the long term. I may be pleased with a brand that delivers what it promises, but my relationship with that brand is conditional. If the brand fails to deliver, even once, or if someone else is able to deliver marginally better value or better service, then my loyalty to the brand is likely to fray.
If a company grows big enough and powerful enough, the threat to the brand goes beyond frayed loyalty. The more I come to depend on a brand, the more uncomfortable I get with a relationship that is defined in mostly commercial, transactional terms. To the extent that I depend on a brand, I would like to think that the power that I’ve given it is being used in my interest. That’s where the force-for-good kind of trust becomes particularly relevant. If I begin to suspect that my interaction with a brand represents the pursuit of my own short-term comfort and convenience at the expense of a lot that I cherish in the long term, then I may start to feel a little uncomfortable about patronizing that brand.
Consider Walmart. When it started out, selling “national brands for less” to working families in small, underserved markets, it could earn trust simply by delivering what it promised. By the mid 2000’s, however, Walmart was the 1000-pound gorilla of retail, and many people had serious doubts that the brand had their best interest at heart. Walmart’s smiley-faced icon, originally a kind of Robin Hood character enthusiastically rolling back prices, was widely coopted by the company’s critics as an emblem of corporate greed, representing the sacrifice of real value on the alter of low price, and signaling the exploitation of working families and the disruption of small-town culture.
It is difficult for any massive company to convince its customers that it is ultimately acting as a force for good. A brand can build this kind of trust only if its customers are convinced that it believes in something beyond making money. In a story, we don’t begin to trust a character until we understand that character’s objective and see what it costs them to pursue it.
The first kind of trust is an expression of honesty: I trust you to do what you say. Honesty serves efficiency; it does not inherently require warmth or compassion. But unless I believe that you are driven by some objective beyond just making money, I will fear—quite reasonably—that your increasing efficiency and effectiveness might end up transforming my world for the worse. The second kind of trust is an expression of loyalty: I trust you to have my best interests at heart—not just what I might want in the moment, but what I will need in the long term to insure my own well being and that of my family, my community, and my world.
Just like the tension between honesty and loyalty in any personal relationship, you can’t build a brand by committing to one side of the conflict at the expense of the other. Simply doubling down on convenience, price leadership and reliability can lead a big brand to justify anything that is efficient and profitable, which can end up alienating big groups of stakeholders. That is what happened to Walmart, and it took a massive effort on their part to rebuild trust by signaling—through their actions—that there is something bigger than profit that the brand believes in when it is at its best.
As with a personal relationship, the only healthy way forward is to relentlessly pursue both honesty and loyalty at the same time—without pretending that there is no conflict between the two. A brand needs to deliver what it promises. At the same time a brand needs to stand up for the long-term well being of its customers, its stakeholders, and the communities in which it lives. At important moments in the life of any brand, those two objectives will collide in some dramatic way.
Embracing this kind of conflict is not a skill most brands have cultivated. A competitive mindset treats conflict as a battle to be won. An analytical approach treats conflict as a problem to be solved. These classic brand-building tools are not wrong, but when it comes to building trust they are not particularly helpful. The whole strength of story as a strategic tool is that, in the world of story, conflict is a source of energy and authenticity. Embracing the conflict—between honesty and loyalty, between short-term wants and long-term needs—is the only way to build the kind of trust that makes a brand both profitable and sustainable.
I can think of lots of brands for which trust has eroded in inverse proportion to their success. If you have some examples of brands that have maintained or even increased trust as they have grown, I would love to hear them.