Trustworthy traits – marketing professor explores consumer uncertainty, leadership and relationships

Jac Phillips speaks with marketing academic Kent Grayson about the culture and traits required for trust to flourish in great organisations.

This article originally appeared in The Trust Issue, our June/July 2018 issue of Marketing magazine.

We are living in such interesting times.

Change is rapid. The brands most popular today may not be the brands we use tomorrow. Who we thought we were last year, may not be exactly who we are next year. What we knew last month is different to what we will know next month. Beyond information, beyond technology, beyond systems and beyond products, trust is the one thing that changes everything.

“It’s not a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. Without it, every part of your organisation can fall, literally, into disrepair. With trust, all things are possible – most importantly, continuous improvement and sustainable, measurable, tangible results in the marketplace,” say Covey and Conant in their Harvard Business Review article. ‘The connection between employee trust and financial performance’.

Trust Cover 200I joined one of the world’s most trusted brands just over a year ago. Visa, in my mind was synonymous with trust – I have been using the brand for as long as I have been wedded to the plastics in my wallet and it has never once let me down.  I can depend on Visa. As it is the world’s largest technology payments network, I was surprised to learn the brand had been around for as long as 60 years – in fact Visa and Madonna both share the same birth year, proving age is an attitude not a number! Revolutionising the payments industry and continually evolving as a business and a brand is the reason people continue to interact with Visa every day at any hour of the day. As I was proudly informed by our VisaNet team in my first week: ‘65,000 transactions a second pass through the Visa network!’

So what was it about Visa that really appealed to me? Working for a brand in a senior position means you are aligning your own values to that place of work, so it is a critical and personal brand-making decision. As well as the typical appeal to the role and responsibilities, the quality of the leadership and the strong technology culture at Visa, it was fundamentally because I wanted to work for a highly regarded global organisation that was innovative, forward-thinking and had built strong connections with all its stakeholders.

Today there are many ways to pay and be paid. Innovation in the industry is constant, but being popular isn’t the same as being trusted. And in my organisation, we are all very invested in ensuring our ‘most trusted’ brand title remains for the next 60 years. We recently engaged with an expert: associate professor of Marketing at Kellogg Business School, Kent Grayson, with whom I was fortunate enough to spend time. I asked him a few questions about trust pertinent to marketing.

 

Jac Phillips: Are some industries at a disadvantage when it comes to their marketers trying to build trusted, positive brands?

Kent Grayson: For consumers, trust becomes more and more important as uncertainty increases. Think about how much trust you need when your doctor says you have strep throat. Strep is pretty common, there’s a reliable test for it, and there’s not a lot of disagreement about how to treat it. This is low uncertainty so not a lot of trust is needed. But what about when someone’s doctor tells them they have cancer? For many cancers, there are sometimes disagreements about whether the tests are even reliable, especially for early-stage cancers. What’s worse, there are sometimes radically different treatment recommendations. This is uncertainty to the max, which means you really need to be able to trust your doctor! So industries where uncertainty is high have to work harder to build trusted brands. For consumers uncertainty comes from three sources:

 

  1. Context: Take financial services as an example. In 2009, many considered the financial services sector to be highly uncertain, regardless of brand or country.
  2. Players in the context: In 2009, the financial services market globally was pretty volatile. But Canadian consumers had a sense their banks had been more conservative in their exposure to mortgage-backed securities. So, even in an uncertain context, their trust was higher.
  3. Uncertainty has more influence when there’s more at stake: I may be OK buying a knock-off pair of shoes at a flea market, because I’m only paying $9.99, and because all I’m risking is that the shoes may fall apart sooner than expected. But if someone tells me that knock-off shoes are often made with carcinogenic fabric, the risk of buying goes up. Now the flea market vendor has to work harder to build trust in order to sell the shoes.

 

When it comes to the marketer/agency relationship, how important is leadership at the senior-most levels in creating a culture of trust and appreciation?

Leadership is critical for everything important that happens within a team, department, agency, business unit or company. It’s critical for creating a culture of trust. First, the leader has to make trust a priority. That’s not easy. Increasing trust is more soft and qualitative than reducing costs. Many leaders naturally gravitate to what’s measurable. But leaders have to remember just how much of a pivotal influence they have on the culture of a company. Generally speaking, an organisation will lean toward whatever a leader thinks is important and will ignore whatever a leader thinks is unimportant. Often, the leader’s priorities will be judged by his or her behaviours and resource investments.

An example: Larry Rosen is the CEO of a high-end men’s retailer in Canada. High-end retailing is successful only to the extent you can build client trust and long relationships! You aren’t selling just one $2000 suit; you’re hoping to sell one or two suits a year for several years. Larry talks about the importance of culture and how he builds a culture of trust. One point he makes is that sometimes his competitors have hired his best performers hoping to buy the salesperson’s sales abilities. But when those high performers are put in a different culture, they do not always perform as well as they did when they worked for Larry. This is because the new culture doesn’t reward building trusted long-term relationships.

 

Do certain personality traits encourage better, more trusted relationships?

For years, psychologists have shown that you can really understand anyone’s personality by measuring what they call the ‘big five’ personality characteristics: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Three of these – conscientiousness, extraversion and openness – have been linked to trust. Research has also shown that national culture influences or predicts trusting behaviours. While it’s easy to overgeneralise on this point, studies have shown those from more collectivist cultures like Korea and Japan take longer to develop trust in new others, especially if the others are from outside the person’s clan or group. Those from more individualistic cultures like Australia, the US and Europe are more willing to develop trust in people they don’t know very well. In his book Trust, Francis Fukuyama argues that these cultural differences can explain why certain countries have developed at different speeds.

 

Some great insight Kent, thank you.

In a world where the only constant is change, it is comforting to know some things, like deep and trusted relationships, ethical leadership and values-based cultures, continue to be the difference – given trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair.

 

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Image credit: Johannes Plenio

Jac Phillips
BY Jac Phillips ON 28 June 2018
Jac Phillips is a brand and marketing guru, connecter and avid learner. She's been a Marketing Mag thought leader for three years.