I’m currently quite taken with the new Fox TV series The Americans, which features a chameleon-like Matthew Rhys and a kick-ass Keri Russell as deep-undercover KGB spies. They live an apparently normal family life in 1980s suburban cold war America, while unbeknownst to their two American-born children, they conduct brutal covert operations for mother Russia. A recent episode called “Trust Me” exposed the perilous shifting sands of trust in their relationships. It is a world where no one is quite what they seem to be, and every character is constantly reevaluating whom they can trust. It is exhausting. Because without trust, every decision or action is a risk.

This holds true not just for human relationships but also for brand relationships. In both, trust is the cornerstone. Brand trust makes purchasing decisions easier, quicker, and less risky. I choose Amazon because I trust that it will deliver the product I want when I want it. I trust that my Neutrogena sunblock will protect my skin. I trust that my Starbucks coffee will taste good. I recently attended an event hosted by the Marketing Science Institute (MSI) on the topic of “Building Trust In A Digital Age.” MSI seeks to bridge the gap between marketing academic and business worlds, by bringing together marketing thought leaders from both realms to research and discuss big meaty, marketing topics. For the Boston Spring session, attendees debated the nature of brand trust and how it is driven and measured. A couple of highlights:

  • Every contact affects the delivery of your brand promise. Strong brands are a promise to the consumer. And trust is at the core. Dartmouth College’s Kevin Lane Keller observes that trust is based on repeated positive experiences that deliver on expectations. What does that mean for you? Every contact a consumer has with your brand can positively or negatively affect your brand. Positive interactions slowly build up your equity reserve, but any transgression will rapidly deplete that hard-earned investment.
  • Trust must be built incrementally over time. In the business-to-business (B2B) arena, trust is fundamental to strong customer relationships and therefore a strong brand. Emory University’s Sandy Jap’s research shows that trust must be built incrementally, through credible delivery on commitments over time. And sudden grand gestures, even if positive, will backfire. Jap puts it in relationship terms — when a husband suddenly bestows on his wife a beautiful bouquet of flowers for the first time in 15 years, he is perhaps not greeted with delight, but suspicion. A dramatic positive gesture undermines trust, because it is unexpected and out of character. Consider BP's attempts to show its good work in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It was too out of character to be seen as sincere and thus did more harm than good for the BP brand.

Our own research at Forrester confirms the importance of trust for brands. I’m currently working on a report that looks at new consumer data that examines the drivers of a strong TRUE brand — a brand that is trusted, remarkable, unmistakable, and essential. Early indications are that trust is fundamental. 

How are you building trust for your brand? How do you measure it?