Trust Is a Must
And nurturing loyalty will help you build it.
In today’s tumultuous world, trust is hard won. Overall consumer trust is failing, which means establishing and maintaining trust with your customers is vital for your brand’s success. Despite rapidly evolving consumer expectations, right now businesses are uniquely positioned to initiate, build, and retain trusted relationships with their customers and other key stakeholders.
According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2022—a global survey of more than 36,000 respondents—businesses are the most trusted institutions this year—more trusted than NGOs, government, and media. Leveraging this advantage provides an opportunity for companies to build and strengthen customer loyalty, and therefore increase the value of those relationships. In fact, according to Forrester’s research conducted for The Trust Imperative, a collection of resources centered on brand trust, “trusted businesses have the opportunity to enjoy higher customer lifetime value.”
Trust must go both ways. Consumers don’t expect perfection from a brand, but they do demand transparency, responsibility, and empathy. Loyalty strategies and programs can provide a sturdy framework through which consumer trust can be built and maintained as the customer relationship endures and deepens.
Build Trust through Customer Service
Effective, transparent, and personalized customer service is the foundation on which brand trust is built. Customers want to feel known, recognized, and valued. Every interaction—digital or in-person—presents an opportunity to earn or lose a customer’s trust. In fact, a 2019 Forbes study of 2,000 American consumers found that “70 percent of respondents said they would abandon their purchase if they had a bad customer service experience.”
In our new global research report, “The Changing Look of Loyalty,” 52% of respondents note exceptional customer service as a driver for brand loyalty. Furthermore, 84% say interacting with loyalty customer service either by phone or email is critically or somewhat important. While good customer service is a standard expectation these days, businesses such as Nordstrom, Apple, and Starbucks have long considered exceptional customer service a core brand value, which strongly differentiates them from their competitors.
Own Your Mistakes
How a brand manages missteps really matters. It’s disappointing when brands we love and support fall short of expectations. Whether it’s a product that doesn’t live up to the hype, an employee or customer discrimination situation, or an offensive marketing campaign—brands must take responsibility and apologize for the mistake. That means taking appropriate steps to address the issue, and sincerely making amends with your consumers.
Burger King’s UK division swiftly acknowledged its error after this tweet to mark International Women’s Day in 2021: “Women Belong in the Kitchen” . It was followed by a second tweet: “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career.” Though the posts were intended to encourage and support women in the culinary field, Burger King UK was criticized for attempting to leverage a dated sexist trope. Burger King tweeted a follow-up that took responsibility and apologized for the error in judgement.
If a brand has previously established trust with its stakeholders and are proactive and transparent in handling the situation, customers are more likely to forgive a misstep. According to The Trust Imperative by Forrester, “U.S. online adults who believe a company is trustworthy are three times as likely to forgive the brand for product or service-related mistakes than those who believe a company isn’t trustworthy.”
Choose Your Partners Carefully
Brand partnerships inherently convey trust through the nature of choosing to collaborate. Each brand must place unwavering faith in the other to build something meaningful together. For a relationship to blossom, partners must trust and respect one another, and then connect those sentiments back to the consumer. Over time, the partnership communications about shared benefits will reinforce this shared respect, creating a halo effect that uplifts both brands.
During the pandemic, DoorDash and United Way partnered to create the Ride United Last Mile Delivery Program. United Way leveraged DoorDash’s logistical capabilities to drive access to meal deliveries in communities and households most at risk. By November 2021, the program had provided “upwards of 140,000 deliveries to 16,000 households in over 220 cities and towns.” At the time, food insecurity was at an all-time high and social distancing limited support from friends and neighbors. This partnership increased consumer trust by serving communities in their time of need.
Turo, a car-sharing brand, partnered with Travelers Insurance to bring insurance protection to their members. The collaboration provided Turo members the tangible benefit of insurance, but also conveyed to members that the relatively new brand had the trust of an established, reliable insurance provider.
Invest in Transparency
Loyalty strategies are an established mechanism through which brands connect, communicate, and reward their best customers. If the rules of a loyalty program are unclear—or worse, are perceived as intentionally misleading—trust will likely be eroded rather than built.
Brands should be forthright in their communications and avoid hiding behind asterisks and tiny-font footnotes about their program offerings. For example, no blackout dates should mean just that. If a loyalty program claims no blackout dates—but has a laundry list of exceptions in the fine print—consumers will interpret that as misleading and disingenuous.
Transparency and fairness are also essential when making changes to redemption value. Few things shake a member’s brand confidence more than being told they can’t redeem their benefits as expected. Customers who are told they can no longer use their points for a free night as promised are going to reevaluate their relationship with the brand.
As loyalty programs evolve to offer experiential rewards rather than simple freebies or discounts, it becomes even more important for brands to deliver on reward experiences in ways that make members feel valued and respected. That’s key to further cementing emotional brand bonds.
Be Authentic or Be Gone—the Role of the Influencer
According to Social Media Today, the vast majority (90%) of consumers view authenticity as important to deciding which brands they like and support. LinkedIn notes that brand or business content shared by employees is more trusted and believable than if shared by a CEO or the brand itself.
While businesses are currently enjoying higher trust—family, friends, and influencers are even more relied upon. Influencers especially have a wide impact. Compared to brand-delivered advertising, influencer marketing is 277% more emotionally intense and 87% more memorable. Also, influencer marketing isn’t perceived as an interruption of content, but rather as the content itself, according to Ogilvy’s Influencer Trends You Should Care About in 2022.
Brands can enhance consumer allegiance with strategic outreach and advocacy by key influencers, but it must be authentic. Relevant, ongoing content from an influencer whose interests, values, and persona align with the brand and customer can reinforce relationships with existing members and forge meaningful connections with new audiences.
Treat Others’ Data as You Want Yours Treated
Let’s call it a kind of data Golden Rule. Companies promise their loyalty members protection and safety when they provide personally identifiable information, preferences, and reviews. And members expect rewards and experiences that are correspondingly personalized and relevant.
Ongoing communication to customers about security and privacy protocols, upgrades, and regulations conveys that members’ privacy is valued and their data is handled with care. In the event of a security breach, immediate notification and clear remedy statements are central to mitigating risk to the consumer and the relationship. Be sure to outline steps the organization is taking to avoid a repeat incident in the future. If your response to a data breach is expedient, honest, and empathetic, customers will likely continue to put their trust in your organization.
Be Real and Empathize
In times of crisis—or even in the event of an individual problem—brands can extend a helping hand in a personal way. Proactively recognizing the issue, communicating swiftly, and extending understanding demonstrates to your devoted customers that you hear them and you care.
If something goes wrong in production or in the supply chain, for example, a brand that reaches out to customers with updates and adjusted shipping information may be considered more trustworthy than the brand who leaves customers waiting and wondering. Coupling proactive customer service with a benefit—such as a discount or additional points—can nurture goodwill and encourage customers to stick with your brand, despite an occasional unintentional hiccup.
Recently, Banana Republic launched its new loyalty program, Banana Republic Rewards. I had a confusing and frustrating experience when I tried to redeem my rewards. When I called customer service, the representative apologized for my frustration, explained they were still working out the “kinks” of the new platform, and deposited 1,000 points into my account to mitigate any lingering negativity. Now, despite that less-than-ideal redemption experience, I remain a loyal member.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, brands including Delta Airlines and Nordstrom took steps to extend empathy and grace to their loyal customers. Recognizing their frequent flyers would lose out on earned companion flights and points due to travel restrictions, Delta rolled those benefits over to the next year. And Nordstrom extended loyalty status levels—even for customers who didn’t meet the required spend. Losing out on program benefits due to circumstances out of one’s control could shake the confidence of even the most loyal customer. Offering fair solutions is an effective way to maintain trusted bonds with your most devoted customers, who will likely view your brand’s generosity as a sign of mutual trust and respect.
We live in an uber-connected world in which corporate inaction is no longer an option. Today’s consumers demand brands take a stand on critical issues. Silence in the face of injustice is no longer acceptable for many brand advocates, and inaction can damage brand equity and reputation. As Edelman’s Trust Barometer puts it, “societal leadership is now a core function of business.” Consumers overwhelmingly report that corporations aren’t doing enough on key societal issues, such as climate change, economic inequality, access to healthcare, and systemic injustice.
Consumers are choosing brands that live their stated values and commitments through words, deeds, and actions. In fact, nearly half (45%) of respondents in our new research study indicate a brand’s reputation and values are most likely to keep them engaged with a brand loyalty program. Shallow statements and hollow promises aren’t sufficient. Brands need to backstop public statements with policies and protocols that support their position, or risk damaging consequences.
After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent social unrest, many brands were quick to make statements, produce ads, and post the ubiquitous black square representing the Black Lives Matter movement in social media. In the ensuing two years, many of those brands have been criticized for not following through on those statements with effective policy.
More recent examples of sociopolitical issues brands are expected to respond to are Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Florida’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Brands that have publicly stated solidarity with Ukraine but haven’t halted business in Russia are experiencing boycotts and negative social media coverage, and they’re being targeted by activist groups. Disney Corporation faced intense scrutiny and criticism from consumers, employees, and the media for not taking an early stance on the Florida legislation—even though the brand has profited from Gay Days at Walt Disney World each June that brings in an influx of LGBTQ+ visitors. If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk.
Build a Core of Trust
In this complicated era of mistrust, consumers are increasingly savvy and informed in their brand choices. Earning and maintaining trust is paramount to conducting business in 2022. The recent uptick in organizations adding the role of chief trust officer to their leadership teams illustrates this urgent pressure. The core elements of trust—transparency, responsibility, and empathy—endure. They are the cornerstones of deep and mutually rewarding customer relationships.
Tess MacGibbon serves as vice president, Growth Marketing for The Lacek Group, a Minneapolis-based data-driven loyalty, experience and customer engagement agency that has been delivering personalization at scale for its world-class clients for more than 30 years. The Lacek Group is an Ogilvy company.