How To Build Brand Trust, and Why It’s the Ultimate Currency

If leaders visibly, vocally, and measurably build organic trust, employees feel pride and become brand ambassadors, while customers and clients will help live your company’s mission.

by Ari Bendersky

Ultimately, to earn and build trust, you need to act with honesty and integrity. [GAIL ARMSTRONG]

“And that’s the way it is.” With that line, night after night for nearly 20 years, Walter Cronkite signed off his evening newscast. Americans tuned in to watch the iconic CBS News anchor, named the most trusted man in America, to deliver the day’s happenings. Though not a business leader, Cronkite still served viewers with the calm authority and no-fuss perspective we associate with the most effective executives. Why did his approach resonate with the public? 

Cronkite earned trust through honesty and integrity and by selflessly promoting the facts – while even occasionally wearing his emotions on his sleeve. When breaking the news to Americans that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Cronkite briefly paused, cleared his throat to regain his composure, and continued speaking.

Leaders need to set the company’s mission, value proposition, and financial and social goals with honesty and integrity, in a way that employees can easily understand and reflect upon.

His report was rooted in fact, but that didn’t prevent the public from finding comfort in his words. It’s a timeless example for how businesses and their leaders can speak candidly to reassure us and still keep our respect and attention: Cronkite showed us that being a source of comfort and a source of authority are not mutually exclusive. You only need to look at our current climate, in which a single dishonest tweet can cripple a career or a company, to see that truth and trust matter.

This article originally appeared in Vantage Point, a Salesforce magazine

Illustration of evergreen

But building a favorable position with the public must start internally. Leaders need to set the company’s mission, value proposition, and financial and social goals with honesty and integrity, in a way that employees can easily understand and reflect upon. If leaders visibly, vocally, and measurably follow through, employees can feel pride, live the company’s mission, and become brand ambassadors, helping to radiate trustworthiness outwardly, to customers and clients, in an organic way.

High public trust doesn’t mean you always have to show up perfect. But you do have to be honest. [AILA IMAGES/Stocksy]

Of the more than 33,000 global respondents to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 86% say CEOs should speak out publicly about important societal issues, while 61% seek honest communications from their employer. The exponential effect of thousands of employees praising the company they work for engenders a longer-lasting brand halo than any “trust-building” advertising or marketing campaign can pull off.

Earning this trust from employees requires company leadership to exhibit four key traits: competence, reliability, empathy, and integrity, according to Rachel Botsman, a lecturer at Oxford University and the award-winning author of Who Can You Trust? 

“It’s powerful to get feedback on why people trust you and why they don’t. I’ve heard very few leaders ask, ‘Why don’t you trust me?’” Botsman said, adding that leaders show their strength by admitting they don’t know something. “You have to look at your own leadership behavior and how that’s perceived externally.”

The exponential effect of thousands of employees praising the company they work for engenders a longer-lasting brand halo than any “trust-building” advertising or marketing campaign can pull off. 

This self-awareness can help build brand trust by allowing for vulnerability and, dare we say, a softer side that can help your brand seem more accessible and honest, with true objectives.

Consider Apple’s “Think Different” campaign that featured great minds such as Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. Or Coca-Cola helping inspire moments with a smile. Or Nike encouraging athletes of all kinds to “Just Do It.” These brand promises don’t make outsize claims about their respective products or services, but they still connect emotionally with the public.

“Companies that have a great sense of purpose that transcends the things they make and sell are the ones that have longevity,” said Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, global executive vice president of reputation intelligence and enterprise growth with the RepTrak Company, a reputation measurement firm. “They’re clear with their values and expectations of what their employees are supposed to deliver on – and that is the ultimate proof point.”

That’s why brand promises, although effective summations of a company’s values, can’t stand alone. They have to be paired with action. When leaders or brands say one thing but do another, people notice. Quickly.

Brand promises, although effective summations of a company’s values, can’t stand alone. They have to be paired with action. When leaders or brands say one thing but do another, people notice. Quickly.

“When we make agreements, break them, and then don’t rectify them, that breaks trust,” said Amy Eliza Wong, an executive coach and founder of Berkeley, California–based Always On Purpose. “It’s unreasonable that a company will knock it out of the park every time, but how do we close the gaps we didn’t intend to make – and make it right?”

For example, when Samsung released its Note7 smartphone in 2016, it quickly issued recalls for 2.5 million units around the world after phones reportedly caught fire and sometimes exploded. Instead of coming out with a bogus excuse or trying to cover up the issue, it took full responsibility for the problem, launched a major research response to discover the root causes, and communicated its findings transparently to the public. This ultimately saved Samsung’s smartphone division and its standing with consumers.

“If you make a half-baked apology around something that really isn’t the issue, it [exacerbates] the problem,” Botsman added. “That apology doesn’t work because it doesn’t acknowledge how people are feeling or offer any reassurance that the company or culture that caused this will ever change.”

It’s unreasonable that a company will knock it out of the park every time, but how do we close the gaps we didn’t intend to make – and make it right?

Your outside perception is what continues to endear people to your company, organization, or brand – until it doesn’t. Their measure of trust is only as strong as their last known interaction with you, Hahn-Griffiths said.

“Maybe you let me down as my airline of choice,” he said. “Maybe I purchased a new car and have been bombarded with product recalls. These interactions can erode trust for any brand.” 

Yet having high trust with the public doesn’t mean you always have to show up perfectly, Wong added. “It just requires you to be honest with the public.”

Ultimately, to earn and build trust, you need to act with honesty and integrity. If you lead with intention and even show vulnerability at times, your values, message, and mission will help you successfully transact with the public. 

Trust is the ultimate currency,” Wong said. 

And that’s the way it is.

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