Do people need to trust the brands we buy and use?

Apparently not. According to this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer report, only 34% of people claim to trust brands, while 53% said they can spot “trust-washing” – Edelman’s newly-coined version of green-washing. This means at least half of us set the bullshit detector to eleven when dealing with organisations we are customers of. This should present an existential threat for companies that don’t have their house in order: 45% of survey participants claim unethical brands would never be able to regain their trust, while 40% suggest they would stop buying from those brands altogether.

But a new generation of brands seem to be doing just fine despite this chronic trust deficit: the likes of Airbnb, Facebook and Uber have posted stunning growth, and arguably begin from the assumption that people can’t be trusted… Except to rat on one another. They function in a manner similar to intelligence services during the Cold War – encouraging people to snitch on their neighbours and maintaining stability through the constant threat of excommunication and denial of service. In doing so, they seem to have turned traditional notions of customer engagement on their head: rather than striving to earn the trust of their customers, they incentivise their users to focus instead on rating each other’s trustworthiness.  They have established a new model for growth: an economy of mistrust.

Businesses create profit from this economy of mistrust by outsourcing the policing of behaviour to their online communities: they establish trust-free spaces in which people are encouraged to act as judge, jury and executioner. We’ve evolved into a society of peeping toms, where the act of recording strangers, judging them and sharing our judgment with other strangers has become commonplace and even delivers a revenue model. Examples exist everywhere: there are numerous stories of hidden cameras live streaming from Airbnb properties.

But the world is starting to get wise to this business model: the likes of Airbnb, Uber, Instagram and Facebook are coming under increasing pressure from regulators, government and the media to curb the worst excesses of the economy of mistrust. The pressure from users is also mounting. A Pew Research study from September 2018 found that three quarters of US adults had either adjusted their Facebook privacy settings, reduced their usage of the site, or deleted the app from their phone in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

So, how will these brands evolve for the post-trust economy?

In Canada, Instagram is trialling hidden like counts, as a way to encourage people to focus on the quality of the content people share, rather than the quantified popularity of who or what is being shared. Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram, explained the rationale behind the hidden likes experiment at Facebook’s annual developer conference in April: “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about.” The experiment is part of a broader strategy to evolve Instagram into a less pressurised and more welcoming environment. Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is also reported as recently saying he would rethink the platform’s emphasis on likes and retweets as markers of success. Perhaps we are seeing the first tentative step in the rolling back of the platform’s reliance on unqualified peer review.

What does this tell us about brands and the changing nature of trust? Potentially, that trust is something we might be about to move beyond. As the Edelman survey demonstrates, most people don’t trust the brands they are a customer of, but still manage to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with them nonetheless. Social platforms have demonstrated that organisations can deliver stellar growth without commanding the trust of their communities. It turns out we don’t need to trust a brand very much to buy from it. I don’t need to trust my bank with my kids’ lives; I just need to trust it to operate at a basic level of competence. I don’t need to trust the place I buy coffee to pay its taxes; I just need to trust it not to screw up my order. So rather than wringing their hands over how to inspire more trust amongst their user base, Adam Mosseri and Jack Dorsey seem to have decided to pursue a more ambitious goal: to make the interactions we have through their brands more rewarding.

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