Achieving Trust Through Action: How to Build Brand Trust in 7 Steps

It was just days before the wedding, and Jay was poised to attend shoeless. To make matters worse, he was the best man.

He’d ordered the shoes the groom had selected from Zappos, but they were routed to the wrong location in a cruel postal error. When he called UPS, begging them to reverse their mistake, they told him they couldn’t help. They could only correct their oversight at Zappos’ request.

Luckily, when he called Zappos, the representative overnighted a new pair of the same shoes to his destination, upgraded his account to VIP status, and insisted on giving him the shoes for free, as a final gesture of apology for his ordeal – one Zappos hadn’t even caused.

“Unbelievable,” Jay said of the experience later. “Zappos has earned a customer for life.”

Trust Beyond Belief

Let’s consider Jay’s description: Unbelievable. As modern consumers, we’re constantly inundated by brands’ promises to go above and beyond for us. But when a brand actually delivers on its promise, we’re shocked. Jay’s experience attests to a powerful conclusion: If a brand demonstrates it can truly be trusted, our loyalty is unwavering.

But Jay isn’t just a return customer. He’s now a passionate brand advocate, who won’t hesitate to share his story with other would-be shoppers. That makes his authentic experience more effective than any ad could be. In the world of branding, talk is cheap. Trust, by contrast, is invaluable.

So how can your brand earn the advocacy of your customers?

We recently set out to review nearly 20 years of our work on trust, pairing our research with that of leading social scientists. Our extensive study, Building a Trusted Brand, presents a forceful conclusion: Brands don’t really build trust after all. Rather, our research shows, trust builds brands.

By using the tools revealed in our research, your brand can achieve trust, too.

Here’s why trust is so important and seven actionable steps you can take to build a trusted brand.

The Scarcity and Subtlety of Trust

A 2017 Gallup study found that merely 21 percent of people feel high levels of confidence in large businesses. Against this backdrop of consumer skepticism, brands that build real trust have an even greater opportunity to distinguish themselves.

Indeed, trusted brands can cement their presence in the marketplace with authentic action. But their emphasis must be on doing, rather than telling.

Trust thrives in contrast to doubt, and research suggests that’s what consumers feel most often when exposed to brand messaging. In a recent article, we note that countless studies confirm people trust recommendations from friends more than any other information source. In other words, customers trust their friends rather than brands themselves.

Why do we struggle to believe what brands tell us? Our review of relevant research finds that our skepticism is rooted in evolutionary psychology.

At an earlier stage in human development, we survived by recognizing deception that would threaten our very survival. When brands’ claims are filtered through this instinctive framework, their words alone won’t work.

Trust happens when brands focus on action, rather than articulation. Whether we’re dealing with a brand or our best friend, building trust is about substance, not semantics.

The Science of Trust

That search for substance raises a complex question: What does trust really mean?

Like love or fear, trust is a seemingly intangible concept, though one with concrete effects for individuals and businesses. Accordingly, social scientists have worked to define the core characteristics of trust, so that we can better understand how it develops.

In the mid-1990s, information scientists D. Harrison McKnight and Norman Chervany set out to determine what we mean when we talk about trust. They analyzed 79 books and academic articles that concerned or utilized the concept of trust, and their resulting paper established four criteria of trusting beliefs that are consistent across diverse contexts: benevolence, honesty, competence, and predictability.

You’ll notice these characteristics speak more to what we do than what we say. In fact, each pillar of trust is so important because we can’t believe speech alone. Convincing evidence can only be found in action.

Our research confirms these basic principles, but streamlines them into fundamental criteria any brand must satisfy to be trusted. After reviewing hundreds of brand studies, we’ve identified these essential elements of brand trust:

The three essential elements of trust


  • A brand’s essential purpose of service, which informs and enables everything it does well


  • The ability to fulfill that promise, as demonstrated by real and consistent action


  • The willingness and desire to fulfill that promise on behalf of customers

Once these elements are in place, a brand is truly born. Each of these terms is applied more often to people than businesses, but that’s by design.

When we trust a brand, our research shows that we regard it in human terms. That conceptual shift makes a real and lasting relationship possible.

Applying These Principles: 7 Steps to Earn Consumer Trust

These conclusions from Brandtrust’s Building a Trusted Brand report are a powerful framework for understanding how trust forms. But for a brand to fulfill its promise, it must translate these findings into specific tactics. If they aren’t felt by real customers, lofty ideals simply won’t suffice.

We’ll outline seven suggestions brands can use to put these principles into practice. In doing so, we’ll highlight insights that Brandtrust employs to help some of the world’s biggest brands tell their stories.

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 1: Pursue a higher purpose

  • We’re inclined to view businesses whose missions combine profit with purpose favorably. In “Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies,” neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak gives special mention to TOMS Shoes’ “storydoing,” a strategy in which brands integrate their social good seamlessly into their branding efforts. In other words, TOMS is a glowing example of our first trust element: promise.
  • Our report describes the promise principle at work in Patagonia’s “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET” campaign. In Patagonia’s case, the brand communicated its environmental ethics, possibly at the expense of its bottom line. Consumers responded to this show of benevolent intention with enthusiasm.  

Let your brand’s promise speak for itself. Marketing researchers Alexander Chernev and Sean Blair have found that charitable work is effective in currying favor with consumers, particularly for individuals with a high degree of uncertainty about the brand’s quality relative to that of competitors. But they also suggest that medium makes the message: Companies that proclaim their good deeds in ads could see less benefit than those that earn coverage through more organic channels, such as social media or news coverage.

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 2: Earn the respect of your employees

  • McKnight and Chervany describe a “benevolent actor” as one who won’t take advantage of others’ vulnerabilities. For brands, that starts with not taking advantage of employees at every level. Of the innumerable benefits of having happy employees, the respect it inspires in consumers is arguably the greatest. Edelman’s Trust Barometer study revealed the single most important characteristic of building consumer trust was treating employees well.
  • Our Building a Trusted Brand report revisits the brilliant example of Zappos, a company that’s built a business worth more than a billion dollars by being a great place to work. The support and professional opportunities Zappos employees enjoy are well-known, inspiring appreciation from customers who benefit from this culture – like Jay. We take an even deeper dive into the virtues of the Zappos approach in this article.
  • Develop a plan for your brand to earn a reputation for supporting your team to succeed in impressing customers. How can your marketing strategies emphasize your loyalty to your employees and vice versa?

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 3: Give your team the tools to be competent

  • Going further, respecting your employees means letting them achieve solutions. For companies hoping to satisfy current and future customers, your team is your biggest asset (and liability) in building trust. But are they permitted enough freedom to exceed your customers’ expectations?
  • Think about how frustrating it is when a customer service representative lacks the power to help you solve a seemingly simple problem. You end up talking to a manager, or several. But in a recent study by customer service platform Zendesk, the single biggest driver of negative customer experiences was having to explain a problem to multiple people in the hope that one of them had the power to help. In other words, customers feel those brands fail the competency test.

Consider how you can empower employees who interact with customers to deliver real solutions. Are they unable to delight with shockingly good service, because they’re constrained by rules and regulations? Or can they make choices that pleasantly surprise customers, as Zappos did for Jay?

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 4: Show customers where their interests align with yours

  • Even if your brand has impeccable service ethics, consumers may not find your statements to that effect convincing. After all, every company competes for business by saying it will go the extra mile. How can you demonstrate the integrity to deliver every time?
  • Our report makes special mention of Craftsman Tools, a brand whose lifetime guarantee has led to an enviable market share. Consumers assume Craftsman won’t skimp on quality if they take broken tools back. In other words, consumers know the brand has their back.
  • Brands can go further to prove they have no incentive to hoodwink their customers. For instance, your messaging might call attention to the percentage of your business derived from repeat customers. That lets new customers know you have skin in the game to keep them coming back.

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 5: Keep track for your consistency

  • Stories from happy customers are great assets in making your case for consumer trust. But even the most passionate endorsements don’t prevent concerns about sample size – is this a universal experience or an isolated exception to the rule? Our report asserts that promises must be realistically and consistently kept, and our article on The Psychology of Trust, underscores this point. If your brand’s quality varies widely, even from good to great, customers could perceive a risk that they won’t be able to rely on you when it counts.
  • There are several metrics that consumers might find credible in assessing whether you’re consistent, from the percentage of your customers you retain to the number who’d recommend your company to a friend. But brands need to look for opportunities to capture that data and share it with customers.

Note that these data likely differ from what your team should use to assess trust internally. Brandtrust helps brands understand more nuanced metrics related to their brand’s health, which are tailored to a brand’s distinct identity.

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 6: Keep it real - and responsive - when things go wrong

  • We’re advocates for “flawsome brands” that acknowledge when they’ve made mistakes to recover consumer trust through transparency. We specifically highlight Domino’s Pizza, whose 2010 ad campaign owned up to subpar customer reviews of their food and promised to do better. In the years since the campaign launched, the company’s revenue has consistently grown. How can other brands follow suit, converting failures to justifications of future trust?
  • One visible way customers react when their trust has been broken is through online reviews. But these digital platforms for feedback offer a chance for brands to humbly correct mistakes. According to findings from the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of Americans feel hesitant about trusting online reviews, fearing they’re often biased or untruthful. But research shows consumers do put stock in companies’ efforts to respond to consumer complaints.
  • A poll conducted by RightNow and Harris Interactive showed a third of negative reviewers replaced their review with a positive one after a brand responded to them directly. Another 34 percent simply deleted their negative reviews.
  • These findings indicate it may be better to respond to negative reviews than ignore them because a demonstration of service recovery could indicate the full trust triplet: the promise of service, the competence to correct mistakes, and the integrity to do so even in tough situations.

How to Build Trust with Customers Step 7: Be human at every opportunity

  • We’re big fans of WestJet Airlines’ well-publicized Santa stunt, in which unwitting travelers were surprised by gifts when they reached their destination. Demonstrations of this kind strengthen perceptions of a brand’s humanity: Like most people we know, WestJet likes to see folks grinning during the holiday season. When a brand can demonstrate its humanity, it’s already making strides in the realm of trust.  
  • Maybe most brands can’t choreograph a stunt on that scale. But social media requires less logistical expertise and expense and represents a means for consumers to relate more directly to brands, from enterprise companies to small startups. Many brands neglect the opportunity to establish trust via these channels, treating social media as just another vehicle for tightly controlled marketing messaging. Research from Edelman shows that might be a mistake. Their 2016 Trust Barometer ratings indicated CEOs should share the following on social media to earn consumer trust:
    • Personal values
    • Obstacles they have overcome
    • Their personal success story
    • Their education and how it shaped them
  • Think about how your brand and its representatives can communicate real human values on social media. After all, we’re more familiar with trusting people than anonymous corporate entities.

Taking Trust Further

By honoring your brand’s promise through these concrete tactics, you can establish a foundation for the formation of trust. That progress is but a beginning, however. Deep and abiding trust is achieved by serving your particular customer in the moments that matter most.

That ideal is only possible once you possess a clear understanding of their thinking. Until you gain insights about what truly drives their convictions and choices, your attempts at trust can only go so far.

Our work is designed to access these conclusions, revealing the specific keys to trustworthy service. At Brandtrust, we employ research methods from the behavioral and social sciences to help brands really reach customers.

Our process entails understanding consumers’ subconscious wants and needs, so brands can connect with what matters most to them.

Where traditional marketing methodologies fail to explain why certain brands succeed, our approach explores the principles at the heart of effective brand identity. When you know what drives your customer, your brand can pursue service beyond what your competitors offer.

After all, trust in a brand revolves around the belief that the company cares. We’ll help you be the most attentive brand in the market.

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