ITL #257 The importance of trust in brand loyalty: building customer relationships through doing good

10 months ago

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A new model of brand citizenship has emerged that calls for companies to demonstrate they have the best interests of their customers and employees at heart. By Anne Bahr Thompson.



TRUST. Agencies have been researching its importance in reputation management since before the turn of the millennium, and academics have debated its connection with brand loyalty since the 1950s. Yet most business leaders intuitively have always known trust is essential for building strong relationships that lead to competitive and economic benefits.

With sustainability and social equity as key features in today’s social discourse, brands need to do more for customers, the greater global community, and the greater good to win faithfulness. Three years of investigation with more than 6,000 consumers demonstrated that people want brands to span across a ME-to-WE continuum of good Brand Citizenship.

Brand Citizenship is a way of doing business that integrates doing good activities—such as fair employee policies, corporate and social responsibility, sustainability programs, ethical sourcing, and charitable giving—with brand development to strengthen brand reputation and foster greater loyalty.

People demand brands span a me-to-we continuum of doing good

Beginning in 2011, participants in my company Onesixtyfourth’s CultureQ® research project began expressing the belief that companies were better equipped than governments to address and solve problems—from the ordinary needs of daily living to the big issues of our age. Our research also showed people support companies that demonstrate they have their customers’ and employees’ best interests at heart.

The qualitative and quantitative studies we conducted led to an unexpected insight: People want brands to start with a ME-First orientation and then to span across a ME-to-WE continuum of Brand Citizenship. Brands must first deliver value to individual consumers (ME) and then, depending on the brand’s purpose, move outward toward adding value to society. In other words, doing good for the collective WE. 

The role of a brand was never meant to be varnish

Social media has trained us all to contrive our posts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in the same manner as do the political leaders we revile, celebrities we adore, and companies we for which we work. As savvy manipulators of identity ourselves, we’re all sceptical of a brand’s claim of provenance, excellence or doing good.

Awareness of “fake” news over the past year has made it even more difficult for companies to effectively cultivate trust. People accept less and less at face value and are more and more adept at seeing through crafted messaging, political rhetoric, and marketing hype. With a camera on every phone and an audit trail on every keycard, consumers count on eventually seeing businesses as they really are.

The true role of a brand has always been to foster emotional connections through a thousand small gestures made every day. No matter what size, scale, or purpose, the bottom line for every brand is Do what you say, with excellence—every time. When you make a mistake—something that is bound to happen—offer the best means available to fix the problem and be honest when you can’t fix it. Trust, the first step of good Brand Citizenship, simply begins by not letting people down. 

Five characteristics for earning faithfulness

Although participants in our research used varying words to describe the brands they trust, the ones they trusted the most embodied five characteristics: Clarity, Reliability, Sincerity, Reciprocity, and Active Listening.

  • Clarity: A brand that clearly communicates what it delivers provides a benchmark from which customers can measure all their interactions. Taken one step further, when a brand shares why it exists and how it helps to create societal value, it fosters deeper emotional connections with its fans.
  • Reliability: Although we’re easily wooed by shiny new toys and impressed by the large number of “likes” that successful campaigns deliver, consistency and dependability are the essential tools for building trust.
  • Sincerity: Like a sincere person, a sincere brand is honest and genuine. It openly shares its point of view on the world and expresses this in communications and, importantly, in its actions and the experiences it offers.
  • Reciprocity: Like our most trusted friends, the most trusted brands give as well as take. Loyalty programs that are like lip service or one-sided data collection tools can do more harm than good and erode trust.
  • Active listening: Brands that invest time listening to customers, and act on what they learn, more readily foster trust. Listening requires more than monitoring response rates to campaigns or new product and service initiatives and then using algorithms to determine what to cross-sell next.

While countless brands include trust as a value or personality attribute in their strategy, no brand can own trust. A brand must earn trust over time through its collective actions. Today, the goal of doing good for customers and for the world is a practical and necessary investment into brand loyalty. This is the new model of Brand Citizenship: a holistic principle that equips businesses to cultivate trust that increases loyalty.


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The Author

Anne Bahr

With more than 25 years of experience as a global brand strategist, Anne Bahr Thompson is an accomplished researcher, writer and speaker, and the pioneer of the strategic framework of Brand Citizenship®. A former executive director of strategy and planning and head of consulting at Interbrand, the world’s leading brand consultancy, Anne founded Onesixtyfourth, a boutique consultancy, to integrate cultural shifts & a social conscience into brand development. Her writings have appeared in Economist Books, hbr.org, The Guardian, Brand Quarterly, Bloomberg News, and many other publications. Anne’s new book, DO GOOD: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, is available now.

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