The Profitability Of Trust

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis of trust identified by the Edelman Trust Barometer study and its impact on brands. In that post, I said that the trust in all institutions had been blown apart, hoisted on the petard of our political divides.

We don’t trust our government. We definitely don’t trust the media – especially the media that sits on the other side of the divide. Weirdly, our trust in NGOs has also slipped, perhaps because we suspect them to be politically motivated.

So whom — or what — do we trust? Well, apparently, we still trust corporations. We trust the brands we know. They, alone, seem to have been able to stand astride the chasm that is splitting our culture.

As I said before, I’m worried about that.

Now, I don’t doubt there are well-intentioned companies out there. I know there are several of them. But there is something inherent in the DNA of a for-profit company that I feel makes it difficult to trust them. And that something was summed up years ago by economist Milton Friedman, in what is now known as the Friedman Doctrine. 

In his eponymously named doctrine, Friedman says that a corporation should only have one purpose: “An entity’s greatest responsibility lies in the satisfaction of the shareholders.” The corporation should, therefore, always endeavor to maximize its revenues to increase returns for the shareholders.

So, a business will be trustworthy as long as fits its financial interest to be trustworthy. But what happens when those two things come into conflict, as they inevitably will?

Why is it inevitable, you ask? Why can’t a company be profitable and worthy of our trust? Ah, that’s where, sooner or later, the inevitable conflict will come.

Let’s strip this down to the basics with a thought experiment.

In a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review, neuroscientist Paul J. Zak talks about the neuroscience of trust. He explains how he discovered that oxytocin is the neurochemical basis of trust — what he has since called The Trust Molecule.

To do this, he set up a classic trust task borrowed from Nobel laureate economist Vernon Smith:

“In our experiment, a participant chooses an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple in amount and understanding that the recipient may or may not share the spoils. Therein lies the conflict: The recipient can either keep all the cash or be trustworthy and share it with the sender.”

The choice of this task speaks volumes. It also lays bare the inherent conflict that sooner or later will face all corporations: money or trust? This is especially true of companies that have shareholders. Our entire capitalist ethos is built on the foundation of the Friedman Doctrine. Imagine what those shareholders will say when given the choice outlined in Zak’s experiment: “Keep the money, screw the trust.” Sometimes, you can’t have both. Especially when you have a quarterly earnings target to hit.

For humans, trust is our default position. It has been shown through game theory research using the Prisoner’s Dilemma that the best strategy for evolutionary success is one called “Tit for Tat.” In Tit for Tat, our opening position is typically one of trust and cooperation. But if we’re taken advantage of, then we raise our defences and respond in kind.

So, when we look at the neurological basis of trust, consistency is another requirement. We will be willing to trust a brand until it gives a reason not to. The more reliable the brand is in earning that trust, the more embedded that trust will become. As I said in the previous post, consistency builds beliefs and once beliefs are formed, it’s difficult to shake them loose.

Trying to thread this needle between trust and profitability can become an exercise in marketing “spin”: telling your customers you’re trustworthy, while you’re are doing everything possible to maximize your profits. A case in point — which we’ve seen repeatedly — is Facebook and its increasingly transparent efforts to maximize advertising revenue while gently whispering in our ear that we should trust it with our most private information.

Given the potential conflict between trust and profit, is trusting a corporation a lost cause? No, but it does put a huge amount of responsibility on the customer. The Edelman study has made abundantly clear that if there is such a thing as a “market” for trust, then trust is in dangerously short supply. This is why we’re turning to brands and for-profit corporations as a place to put our trust. We have built a society where we believe that’s the only thing we can trust.

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and the former governor of the Bank of Canada, puts this idea forward in his new book, “Value(s).” In it, he shows how “market economies” have evolved into “market societies” where price determines the value of everything. And corporations will follow profit, wherever it leads.

If we understand that fundamental characteristic of corporations, it does bring an odd kind of power that rests in the hands of consumers.

Markets are not unilateral beasts. They rely on the balance between supply and demand. We form half that equation. It is our willingness to buy that determine how prices are determined in Carney’s “market societies.” So, if we are willing to place our trust in a brand, we can also demand that the brand proves that our trust has not been misplaced, through the rewards and penalties built into the market. 

Essentially, we have to make trust profitable.

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