Leaps of faith: inspiring trust in disruptive times

Discover the 3 "i"s of trust: integrity, identification and inclusion.
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Anjali Puri

Global Head of Qualitative, Insights Division

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The concept of trust has usually been associated with stasis more than change. It brings up images of age-old, time-tested, large, solid brands and organisations with large and loyal user bases.

Consider the following statements:

  • Trusted by millions of loyal customers for over 100 years
  • Trusted by lone mavericks who dream different dreams

The word ‘trust’ fits much better into the first statement – we are accustomed to seeing it in statements like this, and don’t even look twice at it. It is much more unusual in the second statement – ‘risk’ is more what we’d expect to see there. ‘Risked by lone mavericks who dream different dreams’.

Taking a leap of faith and trusting in change

But trust is as much about triggering change as it is about reinforcing stasis. And in today’s disruptive environment, it is just as – perhaps even more – relevant to talk about the importance of trust in enabling change. Trust that triggers change requires a different set of rules from trust that fosters continuity. There is no personal experience or proof of the past to rely on here, and we are asking people to trust their judgement, their ability to read the signals accurately, their ability to work out how the new rules work even as these rules are being rewritten.

Who were the first few Airbnb hosts who decided to let strangers into their homes at night? Or the first few people who committed to a Xiaomi without ever laying eyes on one? Or the first Uber passengers who decided to ignore what their mothers told them and allowed a stranger to drive them home?

So what do disruptive brands do to inspire such leaps of faith?

The 3 i’s of trust: Integrity, Identification and Inclusion

The 3 i’s framework is based on a global investigation by Kantar TNS into how and what people trust in our increasingly unpredictable world. Considered jointly, these three principles – integrity, identification and inclusion – provide nuance and texture to the notion of trust and what it really means today. They also provide useful direction for brands that want to inspire and sustain the trust of their audience.

Integrity : Doing what you promise

Trust is founded first and foremost in a perception of integrity – which is essentially about doing what you promise, and owning and making up for it when promises are broken. When deciding whether or not to put their trust in something new, people look for signals of integrity – signals that can serve as heuristics for trust in the absence of actual experience.

We all know what these have been traditionally – endorsement by figures of authority, size, social proof, longevity and scientific expertise are examples. But many of these heuristics have collapsed in recent times. People are learning to grapple with multiple versions of the truth – whether in the world of brands, science, news and media or politics – and there has been an erosion of trust in figures of authority as well as scientific expertise. Science provides multiple, opposing perspectives on health and beauty, food and nutrition. Large, trusted, long-used brands have been shown to have feet of clay. Unequivocally positive consumer reviews now generate scepticism.

Integrity is still the foundation of trust, and brands need to find new ways to signal it. However, in an environment where it is so difficult to assess integrity, it is no longer sufficient.

Identification : Establishing a connection at a human level

Identification – a connection at a human level – is one of the most powerful sources of trust in times of uncertainty, and is a theme we have come across repeatedly in our conversations with people around the world.

When ‘facts’, authority, or other rational bases of trust are questionable, people revert to trusting their emotions. We are hardwired to trust those who are familiar and similar to us – those that we can see our reflection in, and with whom we experience a shared set of values and goals. We trust those who are ‘in the same boat’ as us – who are as vulnerable as we are, and have as much to lose as us.

Identification rests on the ability to ‘see’ someone – to have access to their real, authentic selves, even if these selves are not perfect. Among other things, this means creating a human face for the brand and signalling a set of values that you stand by. Our qualitative research shows that people appreciate brands that take a stance and are willing ‘live their values’ in the way they run their business. Airbnb’s openness about its political views is an example of taking a stance that reflects the kind of clientele it wants to attract , even at the risk of polarising its audience.

Small, artisan brands are often easier to identify with than big, faceless corporations. People are also more forgiving of small brands – the small guy fighting in a world of giants is seen as ‘one of us’ and has permission to be human, and make human mistakes. This makes the issue of identification harder for large brands to manage, because it means behaving in open, spontaneous and authentic ways that invite emotional connection and trust, while simultaneously carrying the burden of corporate responsibility and correctness.

Brands that have gone from small to big are particularly challenged.

Brands that enjoy disruptive growth need to be particularly mindful of the point at which they cross over from being small to big, and when they start to be evaluated against a different set of rules.

Uber’s rise and fall from grace brings this alive vividly. From being the heroic small guy creating affordable rides and supplementary income for ‘people like us’, Uber went on to become a giant corporation that no one wanted to identify with – accused of inhuman treatment to drivers and employees, regulatory evasion and lack of responsibility for passenger safety. Part of Uber’s turnaround strategy focuses on bringing back the human face of the brand – in the form of a personal promise by the new CEO as well as bringing its drivers out into the foreground.

Inclusion: Building a sense of kinship

We are programmed to trust those who we think of as kin – those who are part of our ‘in-group’ in some way, whether by virtue of being family, community, country or even people with shared values. The same internal thought process is at work when trusting brands or organisations. Feeling included in the brand’s world creates an experience of ‘being on the same side’, enhanced receptivity to brand messages and a willingness to forgive.

The dramatic growth of local giants in many parts of the world is to some extent a reflection of this phenomenon. 2018 BrandZ data shows that Chinese brands with high Brand Purpose scores, defined as advancing the welfare of the nation, accounted for 81% of the China Top100 value.

Inclusion is not simply about creating a privileged club with benefits. At its best, inclusion means that the brand cedes some control to its customers, and asks them to invest something of themselves in the brand’s world. We trust our kin because they are an extension of us – we are invested in them.

Successful user communities are an example of this kind of inclusion, where people contribute because of the intrinsic rewards of contributing. Xiaomi’s fan base is often considered the secret underlying its huge success, and the company invests heavily in managing this community and keeping it engaged.

Airbnb demands that people go through a multi-step screening process before they are allowed to be a host or a guest. By creating some psychological entry costs (providing proof of id, card details, uploading photograph), the brand heightens the value of inclusion in the community and also signals that other Airbnb members have gone through the same process and are therefore as trustworthy as you are. Being an Airbnb user requires that you invest something personal at every stage – from introducing yourself in an engaging manner to a prospective host to writing a review at the end.

By treating people as equals, ceding control and inviting personal investment, brands can establish a feeling of kinship that begets trust.

Marketers have often thought of trust as an outcome doing everything else right. But in an environment where there is a crisis of trust, it is important to have a proactive strategy to inspire trust. In particular, radical change requires strategies designed to inspire a leap of faith. The 3i’s framework shows how to do this by following the simple principles that make one human being trust another.

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