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Your job: designing trust, because no else is doing it

Building trust ought to be your top priority (well, after innovation perhaps)


As the Gulf of Mexico fills up with oil and the world economy languishes in the great financial collapse, and New Zealand continues to sway under the downward pressure of the leaky home catastrophe you can hardly be surprised that trust in business is taking a hammering.

It was already low. The Sustainability Priorities Monitor, conducted last year for Sustainable Advantage by research company Perceptive, shows that only 27 percent of Kiwi consumers said they trusted business to balance their responsibilities to shareholders and society; 37 percent said they didn't trust businesses to do so at all.

"The remainder, just over one third, were uncertain and could tip either way depending on what the business does," says Nick Jones of Sustainable Advantage.

The report also said that 55 percent of consumers say they have stopped buying from businesses they don't trust in the past six months and 61 percent then urged family and friends to do the same.

Ouch. Trust matters

How can business build trust, then? Research shows that investment in brands can lead to high levels of trust, which in turn leads to business results. In 2009 Concerto Marketing & Research Group surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that when people trust a brand 83 percent of them will recommend it, 82 percent will buy it frequently, and 78 percent will give its new products and services a chance.

Trust in brands may be the very key to reversing the mistrust of business as a whole.

Design can provide many of the necessary tools for rebuilding trust in brands by forcing brand owners back to the basic questions

The same company analysed the survey data to identify the core drivers of trust in brands. They identified six of equal importance:

  1. Stability—borne of time, heritage and authenticity
  2. Innovation—refreshments in packaging, brand extensions, NPD
  3. Relationship—openness to dialogue, 'surprise and delight'
  4. Practical value—it's got to work, for the right price
  5. Vision—leadership and a degree of selflessness
  6. Competence—fewer screw-ups than the rest

It's unlikely that you can balance all these drivers with equal competence. Concerto recommends identifying your weaknesses and dealing to those. For example, old established brands may have trouble seeming lively and innovative, so perhaps an emphasis on new product development is required. Small to medium-sized companies may have trouble being seen as 'visionary' and taking a leadership position, so perhaps it's worth investing in industry research—and then leveraging the PR out of it.

One things does seem certain: brand trust affects the bottom line. Research published in the Journal of Product and Brand Management in 2005 showed that trust is strongly related to loyalty, "which in turn maintains a positive relationship with brand equity". In other words, even the finance team should be interested in trust!

A key driver behind all this is design

Thanks to the likes of Better by Design and the design in business movement, design is now well established as a tool for business process and new product development, not just the usual roles of communications and packaging. Design can provide many of the necessary tools for rebuilding trust in brands by forcing brand owners back to the basic questions: who is this for, how do they use it, how can they get it, does it work, does it inspire loyalty?

Design, more than marketing, asks the awkward questions about functionality, purpose and place. Designers' restlessness and inquisitiveness force brand owners to strip away the marketing hype and return to simple questions about the product's authentic place in the world and in consumers lives.