Garry Vaynerchuk rocked creatives at the recent Cannes Lions Awards in their seats by telling them the work they are producing is “fucking vanilla bullshit”. 

I don’t think it bothered Gary that this may not have been the best way to make friends at a creative award event. He was using the statement mainly to grab attention for his talk on Non-Fungible Tokens.

I’m with Gary on the matter of creativity. In fact, I’m on record as saying the standard of creativity we are being presented with across all media is pretty bloody awful, but that’s not my point today. I’m not here to expound the merits or otherwise of NFTs either. 

I was drawn to this episode not by the event itself, but a review of it that appeared in The Media Leader, in which Omar Oakes touches on a related issue that I believe we should be paying far more attention to.

Omar used the NFT debate to illustrate the influence our current decline in trust is having on institutions. Trust has always been a bit of a joke associated with politicians, bankers, estate agents and the like, but these days I’m not sure we trust anyone.

Quite why this is so is the subject for a much longer debate than I have space for here. What concerns me right now is what we are going to do about it. And make no mistake, if you want your business to succeed in the new economy you have to do something.

How your brand can counter the decline in trust

Brand is at the heart of every business. Brands are communities (If you aren’t up to speed on this you should take a look at some of my previous content) and therefore all about people. Our level of trust in any organisation is a matter of their brand community and the people it comprises. 

Professions or groups get a bad reputation when they refuse to accept and address this. Brand communities are representative of, but also represented by people. The glue that holds these communities together is the values and beliefs individual members share. If those values and beliefs become irrelevant, tarnished or otherwise marginalised, or if the collective fail to reflect them, the brand will lose it’s super-power.

The words and actions of their members have to be consistent, both with each other and with the community’s stated values and beliefs. This is what we call “authenticity”. If you don’t achieve consistency, others will re-write your values and beliefs for you and that’s never a good thing!

All too often I encounter businesses that expect me to find a way for them to do stuff that is wholly incompatible with either their stated values, beliefs or objectives or the needs of the broader population, without fear. 

They want to feed a popular or attractive line to people to get them on-side, then do what they like regardless of whether it measures up to the expectations they set. I’m not sure quite what they imagine they will achieve in anything but the very short-term, by tricking their audience in this way. In fact, I’m amazed and perplexed that they still think, in the digital age, they can get away at all with behaviour like this.

In the UK stories of government ministers, advisors and senior civil servants setting constraints on the public, over Covid lock-down, that they had no intention of following themselves, are an example of this kind of behaviour. We are not alone in this of course. It’s an example of the general decline in trust evidenced around the world. It’s not just about governments either. The crisis is threatening the existence of all manner of organisations everywhere.

Governments can prolong their charade by stifling free speech and constraining the Intertnet. This hinders the dissemination of information that would reveal their transgressions, but, ultimately, even with this degree of control, the facade can’t last forever. The truth will out, which is what’s occurring right now with the UK government. We are now at a point where the automatic assumption is that what we are told by them is not the truth. This results in the decline in trust that is driving them to a desperate and expensive campaign of reassurance. Sadly, so far it appears to be too little and too late. The only difference when we view this in the context of business brands is the length of time a business can maintain the deception. In their case it’s far shorter.

So what happens when your have a decline in trust?

The answer is organisations crash. We are surrounded by examples of this every day. Governments and businesses fold because they fail to deliver the promises they make or the expectations they set. In the case of governments, the deception is intended to deliver votes or support and ultimately power, which is generally the trip politicians are on. For businesses it’s usually money. I’m not saying this is exclusively the case, but it seems we’ve sunk to the level where this is a pretty valid generalisation. Whatever the motivation, the point is that every time a deception like this comes to light we experience a decline in trust of institutions generally.

We all seem to be trying to screw each other over all the time. We are doing this knowing that we’ll be found out eventually because this is inevitable. However, if you know you’ll only get away with it for a short period it has to be worthwhile. So we raise the stakes, go for bigger deceptions with potentially bigger short-term returns and these in turn result in an even bigger mess when the facade can’t be sustained any longer. Nevertheless, we seem to have arrived at a tipping point and I’m pleased to see there are businesses out there that are trying to do the right thing, simply because it is right.

The good news is they are increasingly finding that by doing what’s right they actually become successful. They definitely have to work harder to reassure us of their authenticity, but, people are still looking for institutions they can trust and as long as they are genuine these organisations achieve their objectives and generate revenue. 

There are dangers of course. For example, a businesses may start with good intentions, but they’ll probably need to raise investment at some point. No investor is in business to lose money of course, but there is an emerging breed of investors who realise gains can be measured in different ways. These ethical investors have a broader perspective and are more humanitarian or sustainable than their predecessors. They represent hope for start-ups that need cash, but also want to preserve their ethics. However, investors need to trust in your ability and commitment to delivering and that’s one aspect of business where your brand comes into play.

This principle applies to all brand community segments. That you are judged by the company you keep has never been truer. If individual members of your community segments fail to conform to your values and beliefs, your authenticity will be brought into question and you’ll experience a decline in trust among people representing the remaining segments.

This can be tricky, but there are things you can do to ensure investors and other members of you brand community are representative and there are no “loose cannons” to destroy confidence in your brand. 

The first thing you should do to counter a decline in trust is define your brand

Make it clear where you stand. 

To help with this I create a brand model for my clients. Twelve coordinates that define their brand in terms of values, beliefs, objective, character and promise among other things.

This brand model will become a permanent reference and probably the most important document you’ll ever create.

Next you build a community

Your brand community comprises six distinct special-interest groups. These are the same in every sector and whatever kind of organisation you operate, governments included. They are investors, partners, distributers, suppliers, employees and customers

The principle here is simple enough — run it up the flag pole! Get out there and tell the world what your brand represents (as defined by your brand model) and see who turns up. Believe me it works. Since the beginning of time we’ve congregated in groups, it’s in our DNA, and we join those groups that we feel best represent us. So, for better or worse, you’ll get the membership you deserve.

Research has shown that we don’t need big numbers to start the ball rolling, 15% of your community is plenty, but once it you have it momentum will grow as long as you maintain that all-important consistency. And, because people will be clear what you stand for and join because it’s something they share or relate to, you can be sure everyone in your community will be on the same page.

Internal marketing and training play a vital role in the process of building a brand, but don’t forget you have six community segments so these components must integrate with channels like content and social marketing and advertising.

Make the magic work for you

While you are doing this you should also be deciding your strategy. That’s a logical process of understanding what the market needs (It’s important to distinguish between needs and wants), identifying which needs your competitors are better able to respond to, determining which of those that remain your resources position you to deliver most easily and then deciding how you are going to fill any gaps in your resources in order to do so.

A strategy, however, is very general. The key is to execute this strategy quickly and efficiently, because things move fast in the digital economy. That’s planning — identifying and defining the projects you need to get the job done — but trying to execute your plan without the commitment of your community to do their utmost to make it happen, increases both the cost and the time it will take you.

A brand community gives you the magic power to achieve things that would otherwise be way beyond your reach. All those things that people expect from the brand based on the promise it makes. Your brand won’t be able to deliver these things quickly or consistently enough for you to succeed in the digital economy without unity. You’ll be like a pedal car on the starting grid of a F1 race and that doesn’t engender confidence.

The message here is simple — A powerful brand is the key to building the trust you need to succeed in the digital economy.

Phil Darby
July 5, 2022

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