10 July 2020
This article was originally printed in the New Zealand Herald, 06.03.2020
Let's first set the scene. For close to a century western democracies experienced an unprecedented phenomenon: the ability for citizens to tune in en masse to the same thing everybody else was watching, reading, or listening to. In a given market there were a handful of national dailies of note, a light sprinkling of TV channels, and a few radio broadcasters that achieved significant scale.
We were all, in essence, absorbing slight variations of the same story. This ushered in something that had never existed before, something that was never even technically possible: a shared view -- or at least a shared presentation -- of reality that spanned millions upon millions of households. We called this mass communication.
What's transpired since the nineties is a gradual fracturing of that shared reality. The proliferation of media channels paired with ever-lowering barriers to entry (anybody with an internet connection can now broadcast their views) has created an environment where there are no centralised sources of broadly accepted truth.
Before we all panic, it's important to realise that this isn't a new state of affairs. It's a reversion to the mean. Prior to mass media, we got most of our news through neighbourhood gossip. Your story for why this year's crop failed would be completely different to the rumour floating around two villages over (FYI, their money was on Gertrude the seamstress being a witch).
What's interesting is that the arc of communication tech's innovation and development has brought us in many ways back to where we started. The large social platforms and their vaunted algorithms have created online villages as isolated ideologically as their real-world predecessors were geographically. It's in this environment that 'fake news', essentially a contemporary euphemism for good old rumours and misinformation, spreads.
Which brings us to the opportunity. Trust as a service. In a landscape where truth is increasingly difficult to establish, businesses, brands and organisations that succeed at cultivating and maintaining trust will win the day.
We've seen recently the New York Times conduct a highly successful campaign (out of creative agency Droga5) centred on convincing consumers that NYT is essentially a truth curation platform. They're saying they do the investigative legwork so you don't have to. They'll be your trusted guide through this murky world of facts and alternative facts. Whether you find the NYT to your taste or not, the message is working. They're one of the few traditional publishers growing in today's market. A huge accomplishment in an industry whose critics have been sounding the death knell for two decades.
In this time of competing narratives, if your food brand can earn the right to say 'Trust us to feed you what's good', if your bank can say 'Trust us to help you secure the best financial future', and your government can say 'Trust us to deliver on what we said we would', they will win the day over their competitors. The service you're actually offering customers is the freedom and comfort to let their guard down. You're saying that the draining mental process we're forced to engage in of constantly running everything through the skepticism filter can be turned off while you read the New York Times. Relax, you can trust us. You don't have to question the provenance of this beef, says your favourite restaurant. Relax, you can eat this. Doesn't that feel good?
What's interesting is that the foundations of trust aren't all that complicated. It's not having the best ideas, being the cleverest, moving the fastest. You can actually win the trust game in a very simple way: prime your audience to expect a certain behaviour from you, and then behave that way. Then do it again. And again. And again. You do that enough times and your trust equity will be massive, which in today's economy translates to sales, votes, support and action.
Macca's is very good at this. Jacinda is very adept at this. Trump is actually great at this - don't mistake 'trust' for an alignment with your particular moral compass. At its core trust is built on consistency and repetition; behaving in a way your audience has come to expect. How can you frame your business or organisational offering in terms of trust in a service, feeling or pattern of behaviour you can be guaranteed to deliver like clockwork? Do this and you'll be able to repeat Sledge Hammer's mantra: 'Trust me, I know what I'm doing'. And this time, you'll be believed.