The Crowded Space of Trust

The ‘t’ word has been used and abused, almost to the point of exhaustion. The “great crisis” has accelerated the abuse, as companies and brands rush in where the truly trusted correctly fear to tread.

The latest from Lloyds Bank says it all – monolithic advertising (with its attempt at subliminal trust messages) announcing that it will “work hard to create a trusted bank for Britain’. More words. More promises.

Words and promises remain hollow till proven.

Look around and a swathe of companies and brands are at it. We hear the same everyday – from energy suppliers to financial services companies and many in-between. “We trust our customers”. “Our customers and our employees trust us”. Except they don’t.

The crash spelled bad news for ‘t-word’ abuse. Banks, media companies and financial services fared worse in the trust scores, while politicians hardly covered themselves in glory. Once great institutions failed us all. They responded with hand-wringing – but not always apologetic – commitments to trust. Promises to learn lessons, to never do it again. More words. More promises. Big bucks spent to shout them loud.

Trust is of course not a message but an outcome. It is deeply behavioural. This is where most companies get it wrong – blissful in the ignorant thought (encouraged by ad men and spinners) that the more they say it, the more people will believe it.

This is simply not true.

Trust often spoken is trust rarely earned. Trust is rightfully earned by action, not words. It’s what you do, not what you say – or even what you say you do – that counts. In today’s activist, atomised and asymmetical world, trust is more fragile and more complex than ever before. Trust has to be hard fought, hard earned and hard won, every day. It is tougher than ever to win - and much, much easier to lose. Yelling “trust me, I’m a brand” from the metaphorical rooftops won’t cut it.

Trust has also moved from a culture of “me” to one of “we”. Just as the era of the rock-star, charismatic CEO has faded, so we have rightfully learned to trust “people like me”, over self-anointed leaders. Power continues to shift from state to citizen; employer to employee; corporation to consumer.

“They” are no longer in control, in their command-and-control boardroom bunkers (although they still don’t always recognize it). “We” are – in the workplace, in the shopping centres and at the till points. Even in the media and with institutional shareholders. “We” are all activists now and the future of business should be safer in our hands. If only we all knew it and used our collective citizen-power to better effect.

The smart, trusted organisations of tomorrow are those who recognize this mega-trend of individual empowerment and are learning to love the citizen crowd; to involve them from the get-go; to mutualise thinking, if not business models; to gain co-operative, rather than competitive, edge.

Trusted companies are those informed by regular people – their aims and their ambitions; what they love and what they loathe. Trusted companies participate and empower. They lead from within, with values, not tick-box compliance. They embrace the crowd constantly and democratically as citizens, rather than target them as consumers, just to sell “stuff”. The actions of the trusted organisation are guided by the shared wisdom and shared values of regular people - not by the isolated and lonely opinions of failing and falling business elites.

Written by Robert Phillips, Head of Chambers at Jericho Chambers ( and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London.

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