Trusting your spouse vs. trusting brands

Usually, I totally trust articles written by Mark Ritson.

I do. I trust Mark with my children. With my finances. With my dogs. With my car – my god, the car! With my affections. My confidences. My everything.

But, Mark’s latest article was a letdown that I somehow thought was a parody and that there would be a disclaimer to that effect in the end. But there was none. Mark was dead serious. And that was very, very odd.

Here’s that article, in Marketing Week.

To be clear, Mark sets the stage very logically: Facebook “engenders mistrust and disquiet” in survey after survey; “the company has low levels of public trust that have consistently declined in more recent years”.

And yet, the “same company has grown its commercial base on every possible level over the same period. Penetration is up, revenue is up, profit is up, share price is up”.

Both these are facts, backed by surveys and data.

Then, Mark brings up his insight connecting these two: “what does that tell us about trust and its importance for brands?”.

His crux: “Trust is not fundamental to branding.”

Mark says,

“For most of history, people saw a clear demarcation between humans and the products that they consumed. It was only in the 20th century, with the postmodern turn, that we began to anthropomorphise brands and the interactions we had with them.

Slowly, the concept of ‘loving’ a brand became accepted, popular and then enshrined in management thinking. We learned to build brand ‘relationships’ centred on making sure customers became ‘loyal’ to certain brands. And much of this was founded on that most humanistic of conditions – the idea of trust between consumer and brand.

But was this rush to anthromorphise everything actually a big old pile of bollocks? Most of these concepts that we held in such high regard in the late 20th century are now regarded by modern marketers as highly specious at best, and possibly complete nonsense.

But brand trust survives unscathed and unobjected-to. After all, what could be more inarguable than trust being important to consumers and essential for brand success?

And yet when you actually sit down and think about it, the whole concept seems eminently ridiculous. Comparing the original, human notion of trust with its corporate, branded equivalent makes it immediately questionable.

I trust my wife. Really, I do. I trust her with my children. With our finances. With the dogs. With the car – my god, the car! With my affections. My confidences. My everything.

I don’t expect any of that from brands. Sure, there are some base levels of reliability in there somewhere. But do they exist at a high enough level or across enough complex dimensions to qualify as trust as we think of it in human terms?

In Facebook’s case, do I need to trust the platform like a person? Do I even need to trust it to protect my data? Sure, if you ask me these two questions in a survey I might say they are important and agree that Facebook underperforms on both counts. But perhaps I expect none of this from the platform in my daily behaviour. Perhaps my patronage is predicated on much lower-level expectations: that when I click on the icon I immediately access my network and can see what is going on. The end.

This low level of expectation makes a lot more sense than the focus on higher-order trust. It also fits with the broader rejection of other anthropomorphic traits like loyalty and love being associated, all too easily, with brands. It might also explain why TikTok, another hugely untrusted brand, continues to grow at ferocious rates of both penetration and usage. And this more mundane, basic concept of limited expectations would also explain why Facebook continues to triumph despite the abject absence of trust that most of its users and the population in general have for the brand.”

A lot of what Mark says makes perfect sense. But there are two fundamental problems with his arguments.

1. Higher-order trust vs. lower-level expectations

When Mark asks, “do I need to trust the platform like a person?”, he is conflating the meaning ‘trust’ with what one ‘expects’ from brands. No one in their right mind would ‘trust’ a social media platform like they trust their spouse/a person. So, simple answer: no, you do not need to trust the platform like a person.

So how do you need to ‘trust’ Facebook? As Mark himself offers: “when I click on the icon I immediately access my network and can see what is going on. The end.”

Facebook’s (and WhatsApp’s and Instagram’s) users expect it to deliver an audience for what they post/say on the platform. That’s about it.

Do they believe Facebook to not sell their data to advertisers?
Do they expect Facebook to work harder in reigning in misinformation and disinformation?
Do they expect Facebook to not ruin the world?
These are beyond what anyone (except regulators and lawmakers!) normally expects from Facebook – these are not the make-or-break reasons for choosing or not choosing Facebook for most of its users.

And regardless of the news around debilitating ‘trust’ scores neither has Facebook’s business gone down nor has users and engagement. That only means Facebook is delivering on what it promises to users (who are not ‘customers’ – which is my next point), and everything around ‘trust’ is not part of Facebook’s promise to users.

So, we do trust Facebook to deliver and it does deliver on what it is committed to… users and advertisers. It’s just that we understand that this ‘trust’ is not the same as the ‘trust’ we place on known, fellow humans. We understand that this ‘trust’ is a simple ‘expectation’ (as in, I expect Facebook to…’). Or, ‘I trust Facebook to help me access my network and see what is going on…’. Replace ‘trust’ with ‘expect’ and the word becomes a simple product promise.

This is the same with any ‘brand trust’.

I trust Coca-Cola to deliver a refreshing drink. I do not trust Coca-Cola to change my life.
I trust Surf Excel to clean my clothes better. I do not trust Surf Excel with my childrens’ life.
I trust OnePlus to connect to the calls I make, have decent-enough battery life, and take good photos. I do not trust OnePlus to make me rich.

I do not think we are using an anthropomorphised meaning of trust when we use it in the context of brands. We simply use it based on what a brand is worth in a person’s life.

The problem is with the framing of the brand trust surveys and Mark taking the meaning of ‘trust’ literally.

In particular, Mark presents contradictory data between trust scores and Facebook’s business:

I could not find the full survey of Ponemon Institute that declared that Facebook is untrustworthy anywhere online. It was first reported by Financial Times in 2018 and continues to be reported using just one question and graph: “% Americans who agree/strongly agree that Facebook is committed to protecting their privacy of their personal information”.

Was there a question in the survey that went, “% Americans who agree/strongly agree that they trust Facebook to deliver their social connections on demand”? That is Facebook’s primary pitch, and the problem of ‘protecting the privacy’ is a larger issue applicable to most online brands. I reckon the response from the same 3,000 Americans would be an overwhelming ‘agree’.

For instance, ‘Do I trust Amazon?’ is a very, very broad parameter. I’d perhaps ask, ‘For what?’.

‘Do I trust Amazon with my personal data?’ – This is getting specific. I would respond, “Cautiously. I would tend to share only the kind of data that is needed for me to buy stuff on Amazon.’ This means I trust Amazon with my card details and trust that they won’t swipe money from it on their own. This is applicable to Facebook too. Or Google. Or Microsoft.

‘Do I trust Amazon to not sell my private data to advertisers?’ – Even more specific. I would say, ‘I have no such illusions. Anything I share online will be monetized, unless the brand explicitly tells me so and makes it their primary pitch – after which I can hold them responsible in case they do not adhere to that promise.’

Facebook’s primary pitch is NOT ‘we will not sell your data to advertisers, so come and have a good time’. The pitch is ‘Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life’. With Instagram, it is, ‘Bringing you closer to the people and things you love’. And WhatsApp? ‘Simple, secure, reliable messaging’. Do I trust Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to deliver those? Sure, my priorities may be different that I get more value from Twitter and LinkedIn, but I’m not going to let my individual experience color the larger fact that more people get something of value (as defined by themselves) from Facebook’s properties.

‘Do I trust Amazon to be the best online e-commerce store for my needs?’ – Very specific. My answer: Of course. They have the most hassle-free returns experience and that alone is reason enough to trust them… with my purchases… not my life and limb.

Forget ‘least trusted’ for a second and take any ‘most trusted’ survey results. Here’s Morning Consult’s Most trusted brands 2021 survey result, for instance.

It does not have Facebook. But has other online services like Google, YouTube, and Amazon. These brands are enormously successful, business-wise too. So why cherrypick an insight based on an outlier like Facebook that is not on this list and ignore the value of trust the other brands bring in. Oh, by the way, did you notice another missing brand in this list – Apple! Could we ignore the 15 and use Apple’s omission to extrapolate that trust does not matter?

2. The price we pay vs. the ‘trust’ we expect

That brings me to the second problem I have.

What is a user’s investment in Facebook that could decide the amount of trust?

For instance, I pay Rs. 299.99 to buy a pair of Bata slippers and trust it to last for 3-4 years, at best. I do not trust it to save my life.

I pay Toyota Rs. X for a car and trust it to help me travel in peace and trust the airbags to deploy when appropriate. I do expect it to save my life.

The ‘trust’ that we place in brands (also called ‘expectations’) is a function of two things – what the product/service’s own promise is (and consequently, what we expect out of it), and what we pay (monetary/non-monetary) for it.

Facebook charges Rs. 0 for the services it promises to offer and does render to us. Hence, our expectations would be appropriate to that cost.

(It’s a different problem that we pay Facebook with the most valuable resource we have—our time—and yet we do not realize that we are paying quite a LOT.)

I pay Rs. 499 for a 5KG pack of Surf Excel and trust it to wash my clothes reasonably well as per what they promise.

There is a reason why Facebook and most social media platforms are free – we are the product being sold to advertisers and our time/attention is being monetized.

Even when Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp faced an outage recently, considering we do not have a formal, monetary contract with them, even if we use them for life-saving purposes (a WhatsApp group for doctors, for instance), we cannot hold the platform responsible at all.

So when Mark arrives at a blanket conclusion that ‘trust’ in general is not fundamental to branding, that sounds specious. What do we ‘trust’ the brand for, and what we pay the brand to ensure that ‘trust’ are important contexts that are ignored while making that conclusion.

Trust is absolutely fundamental to branding. Just not the meaning of ‘trust’ as in ‘I trust my spouse’. That is deliberately misleading. It could be as simple as, ‘I trust X to display the freshest vegetables available and to deliver them to me within half a day’. If that is fulfilled 8 out of 10 times, that is trust.

Why stretch that ‘trust’ pedantically in anthropomorphic directions?

To continue with the opening paragraph – I trust Mark Ritson to make marketing sense in his articles. That’s about it. 9 out of 10 times, he delivers. His latest article is the 1 out of 10.

As I had mentioned earlier, we are not the customers of Facebook – we are simply the free users who provide Facebook with data to sell to advertisers. Facebook’s real customers are advertisers. So the ‘trust’ question should be posed to the paying customers of Facebook. And that is an entirely different level of scam altogether, one that Bob Hoffman has been relentlessly exposing. Even the latest whistleblower expose has something that could have brands and advertisers move completely off Facebook, but they do not – “For years, Facebook has misrepresented core metrics to investors and advertisers…” —Frances Haugen to members of the US Congress!

People who spend real money on Facebook should be asked the ‘trust’ question and that would tell us something about the company’s trust vs. business potential.



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