Elements of Trust
January 25, 2016
Fortune magazine editor Alan Murray hosted a couple of dozen CEOs at dinner last Friday. They were all at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and apparently in a philosophical mood because the topic for discussion was "what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical."
The topic is not too surprising: it's one of Murray's favorite questions. But the first suggestion to come from the discussion is promising.
As Murray reported it, his dinner companions quickly agreed on the importance of "putting purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy."
That's promising on two scores. First, purpose is by definition long-term, and if this means CEOs want to take a longer view than next quarter's financial results, we'll all be better off.
But even more importantly, it signals CEOs understand that "purpose," defined as what companies and brands actually mean to their stakeholders, is an essential element of trust.
But purpose or meaning is only one leg of the stool. The other two are competence and affinity. And all three are defined, not by companies, but by their publics.
Trust starts as a judgment of someone’s competence to accomplish a specific task. Trust is context specific. I would trust my cardiologist to administer my electrocardiogram and to recommend changes to my lifestyle as a result. But I’m not sure I’d trust him to fix my car.
Competence is largely a rational judgment, but it has an emotional undertone. It not only refers to people’s judgment of someone's capacity to accomplish a task, but also of the sincerity of their willingness to do so. I know my doctor is competent – it says so right on his Board Certification. But my trust in him is also based on the judgment that he sincerely wants to keep me healthy.
And that’s where trust leaves the realm of the purely rational.
Affinity is more than familiarity, it’s likability. It is sharing something with a brand at a deep psychological level. In some cases, it’s a feeling of security; in others, the bond of common values; in still others, a strong sense of identification.
Some brands have been around so long they have a strong emotional connection with consumers right out of the chute. How people feel about Coca-Cola, for example, can actually be seen in a functional magnetic resonance machine. Newer brands have to work hard to make those emotional connections. For example, everything from Red Bull's labeling and packaging to its advertising and sponsorships associate it with young people's unconscious appetite for rebellious fun.
Affinity, like competence, is context-specific. And the context of both depends on a brand's meaning.
Meaning is purpose, but purpose as others see it, not as a brand defines it. What role do people think a brand plays in their lives? This may be the most consequential question a brand can address. Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.”
A former student and disciple, Clayton Christensen expanded this insight into a jobs-to-be-done framework. He suggested the traditional ways of segmenting markets by demographics, geography, psycho-analytics, etc. misses the point. People don’t base their purchase decisions on factors like those. On the contrary, they hire products to do a job they want to accomplish.
That job can be functional, like a quarter-inch hole. Or it might be emotional, social, or even aspirational such as appearing to others as a professional wood worker. That's the brand's real purpose, its meaning.
Public relations and marketing are all about creating meaning. Finding a product’s most meaningful purpose is an essential step. Procter & Gamble, for example, found a way to give everything from Pampers diapers to Pringle’s potato chips salient meaning. Pampers are not just a container for solid and fluid waste. They’re an article of clothing that plays an important role in baby’s development, from her first days in the hospital nursery to her last day of toilet training. And Pringle’s might be of dubious potato lineage, but customers have no question it’s slice after slice of unexpected joy.
Meaning, competency, and affinity are the elements of trust. But they only work when they are in alignment. And that alignment begins with definition of higher purpose, as portrayed in the drawing above.
For a fuller description of the Elements of Trust, see a paper I wrote for the Journal of Business Strategy: Towards A Model Of Trust.