How Brands Build Trust Through Transparency and Cynical Optimism

Between recent corporate scandals, media fragmentation, and massive data breaches, it comes as no surprise that Americans have little faith in our institutions. According to this 2018 Gallup poll, only 40% of the population has confidence in the US government. That’s less than our degree of trust in Amazon. The figure is even lower when it comes to faith in religion (36%), banks (30%), and media (23%). 

I put these four – government, religion, finance, and media – together because these are the cultural institutions that have the most influence on how people make meaning of their everyday lives. The increased cynicism of recent years tempts us to detach: to disengage further from a society we don’t believe operates in our best interest. But with our trust in institutions at an all-time low, businesses have an opportunity not only to increase earnings, but to create genuine purpose as well. In fact, there are interesting trends in whom Americans invest their trust these days that should get your attention – if not your conscience – as a brand.

Business Can Bridge the Confidence Gap

In stark contrast to this widespread crisis of confidence, 68% of Americans trust small businesses and 74% believe mission-driven brands can meaningfully impact their communities while increasing profits. Consider TOMS’ socially conscious One for One campaign that donates a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair purchased. It has resulted in the donation of over 60 million pairs of shoes. Plus, profits go toward providing prescription glasses and medical treatments, safe drinking water, and job opportunities in developing countries.

Yet the disconnect between consumers’ ideals and their realistic expectations reveals just how distrusting buyers have become. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer special report In Brands We Trust?:

  • 53% of people believe that brands have an obligation to be involved in at least one social issue that is unrelated to their bottom line, yet only 21% say that brands act with society’s best interests in mind.
  • 81% of respondents said they need to be able to “trust the brand to do what is right,” and yet only 34% of consumers actually trust the brands they buy from most.
  • 49% believe that brands are better equipped than government to solve social ills, yet 56% see brands’ use of social issues as no more than a marketing ploy.  

These patterns are new. Only in the past few years have Americans increasingly viewed businesses and brands through a lens of values and integrity. Belief-driven business has the potential and consumer support to undo this pervasive distrust, but in order to do so, they must be willing to do three things: 

  1. take a stand on social issues, 
  2. build meaningful relationships with their customers, and 
  3. operate with complete transparency to rebuild the confidence that “business as usual” has broken.

It’s time for business as unusual. It’s time for business artists to step up and lead with their ideals. Ironically enough, a healthy dose of cynicism may be their greatest tool in this professional and cultural revolution.

The Cyber Cynic vs. Cynicism

In today’s terms, cynicism is the belief that people are motivated solely by self-interest. This perspective inevitably catalyzes an erosion of social engagement as we come to distrust each other’s motives – an erosion that has only accelerated with the rise of Internet culture.

It’s no coincidence that Gen Z and Millenials are more distrustful of business than any previous generation. With more access to information (and more misinformation) than ever before, this demographic has learned to cultivate a healthy skepticism of the so-called “facts,” to uncover brands’ false promises, and to expose companies’ closet skeletons. They have learned to harness the power of the Internet and curate information to formulate their own opinions and decipher marketers’ old school spin.

The Greeks had a different interpretation of cynicism. The school of thought known as Cynicism reigned from the 5th to the 3rd century BC. Cynics believed that the purpose of life is to live virtuously, and the key to happiness is to walk the earth in harmony with nature. They eschewed the desires for wealth, power, sex, and celebrity that society instills in us, and lived instead in ascetic poverty. In fact, the word “cynic” comes from the Latin cynicus (or Greek kunikos) taken to mean “doglike” or churlish because the Cynics were often called dogs for their unkempt appearance and uncivilized way of life.

In some ways, modern cynics reflect the philosophy of their Greek forebears: they cut through the illusion and spectacle of spin in much the same way the Greeks cast aside decorum and worldly desires to get to the truth. The difference is that cyber cynics tend to respond to the discrepancies between our ideals and our reality with pessimism, disillusionment, and disengagement, while the Cynics used their philosophy to cultivate a questing mindset that challenged the status quo.

In this sense, the business artist can learn from both by adopting the curious, questioning attitude of centuries past, and by leveraging digital tools to foster transparency and trust. We can become cynical optimists.

How to Be a Cynical Optimist

The cynical optimist balances the cynic’s critical eye with optimistic enthusiasm and inventiveness. It is a fine balance, but when you remove pessimism from the equation it becomes easier to maintain the tension between skepticism and positivity to discover creative solutions. It is an opportunity for business artists to create new models that genuinely contribute cultural value and fulfill emotional needs, while remaining financially sustainable. 

The greatest challenge businesses and brands face is establishing trust with an Internet-savvy and extremely skeptical consumer audience. In the fast-paced digital world, the barriers to brand adoption and abandonment are very low and the consumers’ options are endless. It is no longer enough to have an exceptional product or service. You have to establish a deep and committed relationship with your customers or clients. Trust becomes the currency by which companies can build long-term loyalty.

But how do we build when our old models of communication no longer work and the magnifying glass of the cybersphere hovers overhead?

The best way is to accomplish this is to define your beliefs, act with integrity, and carry out your work with complete transparency. Digitalization allows brands to share massive amounts of data, instantaneously engage clients or customers around the world, and keep a finger on the pulse of the latest political, economic, and social issues so that they can connect with their audience in meaningful ways.

Here’s how you can take advantage of the Internet age to rebuild trust:

1.     Know and show your values. 

Consumers today want to support brands with a cause. The same In Brands We Trust? report found that 67% of consumers bought a brand for the first time because it reflected a strong belief they held, while 65% won’t buy a brand if it’s remained silent on an important issue. Certainly, many companies have lofty ideals, but in our cultural climate, you need to take a stand on social issues and demonstrate your commitment to upholding your beliefs. Not only will this practice distinguish your brand: It will also establish a foundation of core values that can help your business weather the tests of time.

2.     Build lasting, loyal relationships.

Every customer interaction is an opportunity to build, sustain or dilute trust so approach each exchange with intention. Consumer purchasing behavior is largely driven by beliefs and emotions, so stop to consider your target audience: What do they currently feel before they experience your brand’s product, service, or event? What do they expect to feel? Simpler still, deliver on your promises. If anything, under-promise and over-deliver. When your customer trusts that you have their best interests at heart and that you will follow through, they are 93% more likely to recommend your brand.

3.     Be transparent and take accountability.

Too often, companies use transparency retroactively, as a defense mechanism in the hopes of winning back favor after some scandal or other. This has proven successful. According to Sprout Social’s report on transparency, 89% said a business can regain their trust if it admits fault and is transparent about the steps it will take to resolve the issue. Take transparency one step further and be proactive by allowing your consumers access to the information that affects their purchasing decisions and privacy. After all, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. It’s the honest thing to do but it also pays off: 85% of consumers are more likely to stick with a transparent business during crises.

4.     Prioritize customer privacy.

New laws regarding privacy protection do more than simply guard consumers against “creepy” over-personalization of ads. They create opportunities for brands and businesses to establish trust and long-term loyalty. It may seem like a trivial consideration, but prior to Facebook’s 2018 data breach scandal, 79% of users said they felt confident that the platform was committed to protecting their personal information. Just one week after the breach, that number plummeted to 27%. The Internet has its dangers. Be sure to prioritize your customers’ or clients’ security.

Does wide-eyed naiveté triumph over cynicism?  Well, in the case of cynical optimism, we could say that with business as unusual, we can see how wonder keeps the cynics open to possibility while a healthy cynicism keeps the naifs grounded.

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