The Psychology of Trust Building

Given that trust is a very human characteristic, we can understand a lot about trust in brands by exploring the way it operates between people.[i] We can use the very same principles to understand the way in which trust works between consumers and brands.  These are critical for any organisation to get right if they want to build trust with their customers.  The key drivers that need to be considered as drivers of trust are outlined below:

  • Reciprocity: If a consumer considers the organisation to have treated them well, then this is a key mechanism for creating and maintaining trust. This can, of course, take many forms but an act of loyalty may be ensuring that customers are always on the best deal, that they get ‘loyal member’ discounts or perks etc.
  • Character: If the brand is judged to be of ‘good character’ (likely through maintaining ethical standards) then we are more likely to trust that they will do ‘the right thing’.  Certain organisations such as banks make a significant investment in creating a reputation for good character.
  • Commitment: If we believe that an organisation has an investment in maintaining a positive long-term relationship with us, we are able to trust them more – they have something to gain by acting in our interests.  For example, is widely understood that restaurants in popular day-trip tourist destinations are not trusted because they do not need to rely on repeat business.  The local corner shop, by contrast, is highly dependent on our repeat visits for small purchases.
  • Intentionality: If a brand’s desire to be trusted is simply to offer a good image to the world then, paradoxically, it may no longer be trusted.   Consider the way in which companies have sought to enhance their credentials for good causes such as the environment whilst at the same time pursuing environmentally damaging activities.  We use intentionality to decide whether a brand is similar to us, as we are typically more comfortable dealing with people who are like us.  Intentionality helps us to identify whom we can and cannot trust.
  • Shared risk: If we need to take a risk by placing trust in a brand that has nothing to lose however they act, then we struggle to trust them.  So, a brand with a strong market position can therefore perversely suffer from due to this imbalance of power.  This is a problem for brands in a dominant market position as their acts can be interpreted as mere window dressing.  If consumers have little or no effective choice but use them, then there is no sense that the brand themselves have offered anything substantive to the building of trust.  Companies in these positions need to work much harder to convince customers of the integrity of their actions through being seen to have ‘skin in the game’.
  • Authenticity: Trust is generated by brands undertaking actions which fall outside of explicit regulation. If a customer’s experience of an organisation is the reflection purely of a very detailed set of regulated responses, then this is unlikely to establish a trusting relationship.  This is why the apparently spontaneous giving out of free coffees and snacks to customers by Starbucks staff was so jarring when it was discovered that they were required to do so.  When the guidance was published showing staff were required to give out free items, the authenticity of the friendly gesture was suddenly called into question.[ii]

The relevance of these will, of course, vary by market category, brand, customer segment and so on.  But this should serve as a useful starting point for brands wishing to develop their customer experience strategy and associated measurement tools.

By Colin Strong



[i] For more detail see


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Colin Strong is Head of Behavioural Science at Ipsos. In his role he works with a wide range of brands and public sector organisations to combine market research with behavioural science, creating new and innovative solutions to long standing strategy and policy challenges. His career has been spent largely in market research, with much of it at GfK where he was MD of the UK Technology division. As such he has a focus on consulting on the way in which technology disrupts markets, creating new challenges and opportunities but also how customer data can be used to develop new techniques for consumer insights. Colin is author of Humanizing Big Data which sets out a new agenda for the way in which more value can be leveraged from the rapidly emerging data economy. Colin is a regular speaker and writer on the philosophy and practice of consumer insight.

Categories CX, Marketing, Psychology, Trust