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Looking for trust in a climate of uncertainty

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When news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in early 2018 it was a wake-up call for the world.

In a nutshell

  1. Dynamics around data and privacy are changing. In the wake of various hacks and data breaches, people are now questioning how their personal data is stored, used and protected by the organisations they deal with. 
  2. The new contemporary version of trust is no longer fixed and has to be earned and actively maintained in a customer-centric and human-centric manner.
  3. Transparency around business practices and a willingness to take a proactive stance on topical issues in an authentic manner is a way for organisations to build and maintain trust.

We all realised we had to take a more informed look at how our data is being using by companies, our rights over our data and the ‘free’ social media platforms that we use. Why do we trust these ‘free’ services and what do we really give up for them to be ‘free’?

Many commentators have likened data to the new gold. However, Tijmen Schep, a technology critic and privacy designer who coined the term ‘social cooling’ to describe the unintended and long-term negative effects of living in a reputation economy, argues that data is the new oil. He paints a different picture by hinting that we need to heed caution in how we use this resource.

We have seen conscious consumers become more concerned about their privacy – examining how their data is stored, used, protected and if and when they are being tracked. This is not to say that being tracked or that businesses using data to give their customers enhanced experiences is bad or unethical. Rather, the bigger question is whether businesses are adequately informing people that this is the case.

It’s no secret that many people glance over or fail to read T&C’s or license agreements when using new services and products. The alien and technical way these documents are presented in fact encourages people to acquiesce and scroll down until they see the “yes, I agree” button and think to themselves “what’s the worst that could happen?”.

What does trust look like in an age where fake news and algorithms proliferate, digital clout acts as a form of currency and the emerging data economy make us second guess what we share?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, various hacks and data breaches and Google’s Project Dragonfly (a censored search engine in China) caused people to really question the integrity and trustworthiness of tech giants and long-standing institutions. What does trust look like in an age where fake news and algorithms proliferate, digital clout acts as a form of currency and the emerging data economy make us second guess what we share? These tensions around transparency, authenticity, integrity and trust in the digital age, and in particular how we treat data, are captured in the cultural current that we call Trust & Integrity.

A new definition of trust

The new contemporary version of trust is no longer fixed and has to be earned and actively maintained in a customer-centric and human-centric manner.

Trust has traditionally been created through legacy, prestige and authoritative or institutional backing. However, this long-standing version of trust is being eroded as allegations of corruption, scandals and lack of transparency are muddying the waters. The new contemporary version of trust is no longer fixed and has to be earned and actively maintained in a customer-centric and human-centric manner. It is about aligning with people’s values – doing good, standing for something meaningful and relevant and knowing that it can easily be eroded in a climate where people are primed to call you out.

Trust can be built through social and digital ecosystems (reputation economies) where influencers and creators help to grow the reputation of a brand through endorsements and recommendations. Integrity become important in this realm as fake followers, a lack of transparency and disclosure around #sponsored content on Instagram has birthed a new type of influencer to combat these murky waters.

Nano influencers are influencers on Instagram with a modest yet engaged following (typically defined as 500-5000 followers). They aren’t viewed as celebrities, instead they are seen as someone who is “just like me” to Gen Z and young Millennials. In 2018 Johnson & Johnson launched their Clean & Clear campaign hiring six young nano influencers in the hopes that their recommendations to their highly engaged following would come off as more trustworthy and authentic.

Transparency becomes non-negotiable

There needs to be enough transparency around areas such as business practices, business models and supply chains that a customer is able to make an informed choice whether or not they will partake.

Transparency around business practices and a willingness to take a proactive stance on topical issues in an authentic manner is another way for organisations to build and maintain trust. However, transparency is a gradient, not a reveal-all, where you have nowhere to hide away. There needs to be enough transparency around areas such as business practices, business models and supply chains that a customer is able to make an informed choice whether or not they will partake.

With social and environmental sustainability becoming a hygiene factor, consumers are wanting to engage and see businesses do instead of just talk. A caveat here is doing with authenticity and integrity, otherwise messaging can be seen as light-touch or just another tactical PR stunt. Instead, people want to be reassured that their values are shared and considered important by businesses who join the conversation or provide a platform in which these issues can be discussed.

While hailed a success by many, Gillette’s recent ad caused a bit of controversy with commentators calling out the brand for releasing an ad about toxic masculinity yet having a ‘pink tax’ (charging more for women’s products) and its parent company having a history for animal testing. Although toxic masculinity and its surrounding discourse is important, these conversations and responses need to come from a place of authenticity and care. It’s not to say that Gillette didn’t have good intentions with their ad, but to some people the ad in question felt like a light-touch PR exercise with a company taking the moral high ground without earning it.

As businesses we need to understand these changing dynamics and expectations of trust. While multiple versions of trust do exist, the emerging contemporary version requires a more proactive and ultimately a more human-centric approach. We need to engage and understand our customers so that we not only make better stuff but also help to improve the lives of who we design and create for while looking after our planet.

Jonny Almario
Cultural insights specialist

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