Why Tech Can be a Doubled Edged Sword for Trust

It is well documented that technology is disrupting every industry.  In fact, it is fair to say that the fundamentals of the consumer brand relationship are rapidly being redefined by technology.  So we are now much less likely to engage with a human when we are shopping or using banking services – it is much more likely to be a digital transaction.  This is effectively sidelining human engagement which has long been used by brands as a means of creating trust, liking and a sense of belonging. Just think of the friendly interactions that it is possible to have with a shop assistant.  It is fair to say that it is a struggle to relate this to an online shopping experience.  The impersonal nature of digital transactions is leaving many brands struggling to understand how technology can be used to optimise customer engagement – and in particular, how they can retain their trust.

On the plus side, brands are now in a stronger position than ever to personalise at scale, which clearly has the potential to generate deeper and more meaningful relationships with their customers.  Huge amounts of insights can be gleaned about customers from a wide range of data sources which can then be used to shape the interaction.  So not only is it possible to call people by their first name but show them things that they are likely to want and even use the language they are likely to prefer (e.g. formal versus familiar).  In addition, the impersonal nature of digitalisation is eased by the ‘Eliza effect’, the way we project human characteristics onto machines.  This often means we are increasingly ready to consider our interactions as almost human-like in nature.

On the other hand, although brands are starting to embrace the potential of the data they hold on their customers, the imbalance of information can lead to distrust.  There is an ‘uncanny valley’ opening up, where customers feel ‘creeped out’ by the highly personal nature of the details that brands hold on them.   The very thing that has the potential to drive trust and engagement can also do exactly the opposite if executed badly.

So where does this leave the issue of trust?

It is clearly (mostly) not difficult for a brand to be trusted to perform what they have been contracted to deliver.  If you buy your groceries online, they are typically delivered safely and with a minimum of fuss. The bigger issue is whether you can be trusted to ‘do the right thing’.  That is, whether the brand can be seen as ‘trustworthy’.

These two different aspects of trust are often confused.  So when for example a company makes a mistake such as not preventing a data hack the CEO may apologise for the failure of process and commit to it not happening again.  However, the real issue here is that customers feel betrayed – the company did not do the right thing and their customers want to have a recognition of this.  Or perhaps when we buy an item we can trust it will be delivered but do we think that the brand is sufficiently trustworthy that they will give us our money back if it is not right, or will they try to avoid doing so?  There is a distinction between the transactional and existential aspects of trust.

So what can brands do to build and communicate trust?  Unfortunately, generating trust is not a simple marketing strategy that can easily be applied to enhance the standing of an organisation.  Because, for this very human need, we are highly sensitized to ways in which we are potentially being manipulated.  We are hard-wired to question someone who tells us to trust them.

Instead, building trust requires a number of very human characteristics – being very open, making oneself vulnerable, been seen to be placing trust in others to name but a few.  This is all perfectly possible for a brand although it may not always sit easily with their culture.  But there is also a challenge about how to offer this at scale.  At times it may require a major overhaul in the way the organisation thinks about its customers.  But at other times there can be quick wins.  Think of the way in which some organisations require you to submit quite a bit of evidence if the item they sent is damaged/wrong.  Trusting that the customer is telling the truth may have some minor short-term financial downsides (some will inevitably take advantage of the brand’s trust) but there is surely potential for a much greater long-term win.

So can a brand use technology to build trust?

At first sight, the signs are not promising as, after all, trust is a very human endeavour.  But in reality, it’s all about whether the brand can do this in a human way.  Technology can be used to manipulate or ‘play’ customers or it can be used to enhance the nature of the relationship.  We (hopefully) won’t stand for the former in our personal relationships so why we would we put up with it when dealing with brands?

But if brands are to use technology to reflect a very genuine human desire to connect and facilitate in an open and honest way then there are huge opportunities to build trust.  Look at the way more inspired brands have used social media to say when they have got things wrong. Or when brands have used their website to give detailed information on their ingredients or manufacturing processes.  These are all about being open and in that process, they make themselves vulnerable and open to criticism.  But these are examples of how technology can be used in a very human way to create trust.

When good brands do bad

However, be aware that it’s also less about what you do but how you do it – what is the intent behind it?  There is a very high price if brands get this wrong.  A paper entitled ‘When Good Brands Do Bad’ by Jennifer Aaker, Susan Fournier and S. Adam Brasel suggested that ‘sincere’ brands with whom customers have a loyal and trusting relationship are expected not to transgress.  More ‘exciting but less sincere’ brands are, by comparison, forgiven much more quickly.   Whilst these apparently contradictory standards at first appear not to make sense, again when thinking about it in the context of personal relationships there is a clear logic to it.  Trust to do the right thing was not an expectation for ‘exciting’ brands, it is for brands that trade on their sincerity.

So what is a brand to do?

There is a growing awareness of the way in which technology itself shapes our relationships both with each other as well as between consumers and organisations.  Just think of the subtle ways that Facebook has changed the way we relate to each other.  Or the way we now use Twitter to talk to previously hard t reach organisations. As Marshall McLuhan famously stated. ‘The medium is the message’, meaning that technology is not simply just a tool at our service but also subtly operates to shape how we think and behave.

Brands urgently need to develop a better understanding of the psychology of technology-mediated relationships because the choices made in this space can have a huge impact on long-term growth and profitability.  It’s not just about ‘nudging’ to encourage greater stickiness or sales.  Of course, that’s important but what is really at stake is designing to build very human attributes such as trust and in doing so build long-term customer value.

By Colin Strong