Trust in the Future

The marketing metric of the next decade will be trust. There will be no more effective—nor more critical—way of building a brand than building a community who trusts you enough to advocate on your behalf.

With trust in brands and advertising at an all-time low, there will never be a better time to build a human-centered marketing strategy. The tactics of this decade—data collection, tracking, endless ads—will not work in the next.

Your customers are already telling you how to connect with them in a way that will grow your business. Are you ready to listen?


What’s up everybody, this is Cliff Seal and this is Trust in the Future, a research-driven look at what trust actually means in a marketing context—and how it’s created and measured.

Trust will be the most critical marketing metric in this decade. Building a brand will mean building a community that trusts you enough to advocate on your behalf. The tactics of the last decade—data collection, tracking, endless ads—will not work in this one.

One important note before we get started: every bit of research and data that I cite in this discussion has a verified source and I’ve personally ensured that each one of them is reasonably trustworthy: solid research methodology, ample data, and logical conclusions. You can find every source for yourself by going to You should be critical of every conclusion and underlying data point presented by anyone, and I encourage you to do the same to me. Feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions.

Let’s get started by talking about this word “trust”. It’s a concept so familiar it feels a little ridiculous to examine, but the word itself does too much heavy lifting—even in the research itself.

You can see how we strain the meaning of the word in surveys, including the ones I’ll use here. Sometimes results will seem contradictory, because we’re humans and have complex, deeply personal relationships with trust. We create our own amorphous definitions.

By paying close attention to the phrasing of these questions and referencing several bodies of reliable research, we can start to make out the shape of customer trust and see its effects on behavior. We can start to see what trust looks like, how to generate more of it, and how to measure it.

So, let’s take a look at the state of trust in pre-COVID 2020. I would describe it as skeptical, but hopeful—here’s why.

54% of consumers and business buyers don’t believe companies have their best interests in mind. That’s according to Salesforce’s Trends in Customer Trust research. That’s a tough pill to swallow.

Yet, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, 81% say trust in brands is an important part of purchase behavior.

So, what we see from the jump is that while there’s not a lot of trust going around, people are still willing to give it. Buyers are able to see that it’s possible to trust a brand in a conscious way and act on it, even if they’re not able to tell you exactly what being trustworthy looks like.

This is an opportunity to earn trust for your brand, but there’s no shortcut. The distrust has become cultural. Privacy has injected itself into the zeitgeist as a response to this distrust. And looking at what these features are designed to keep private can help us model trustworthy behavior.

For instance, take a newer device-level feature from Apple called Hide My Email. It’s bundled into Sign in with Apple, which is already a privacy-focused response to logging in with social networks. Hide My Email provides a painless way to let Apple proxy your email address, enabling you to sign up for a service and receive email without the original service getting your actual email address.

Obviously, this means user email addresses aren’t sitting in different marketing databases, which minimizes the privacy risk to the user. It’s so normal to not trust your email address to another company that Apple shipped its own service to prevent it. The distrust is cultural.

You’re also seeing this in the browsers we use every day: from default cookie and fingerprint blocking to full-on tracking prevention. This is the new normal. Tracking with cookies or fingerprinting will increasingly require explicit opt in from users. We’ll talk about how to ask for this permission effectively later on.

So, privacy-focused features are being baked into the hardware and software we use every day by default. Even beyond that, about a third of the global population blocks ads and uses a VPN. Privacy isn’t in the early adopter stage.

Even all the way back in 2014, nearly half of Gmail users were disabling email images by default. Even if the user doesn’t know they’re preventing open tracking by disabling images, the point is that it’s a privacy-focused feature built in response to distrust.

We’re not going back. People will continue to demand more from companies in order to trust them, but they’re still willing to trust. Companies have an opportunity to build that trust now. You’ll get higher returns on your effort now instead of waiting for the culture (or legislation) to force you to change.

And if that feels too nebulous, no worries—let’s talk about what the research shows. Trust is highly correlated with the metrics you definitely want moving up and to the right for your brand.

According to the Trust Barometer report, trust generates attention—that’s to say, people who trust you pay attention when you market to them. Anyone who’s ever touched a marketing budget knows attention does not come cheap.

We also see that trust in a company drives conscious loyalty from the customer, along with likelihood of recommending you to others, likelihood of buying more products and services, and more. We’re talking 95% of customers said trust caused them to be loyal, 93% said they would recommend.

In fact, we even see that brands can generate trust across several dimensions: the product or service itself, the company itself, and the company’s impact on society.

That means trust can catalyze the entire marketing funnel, from attention to advocacy. Trust drives loyalty, and loyalty drives advocacy.

All this seems great until you find out that these same customers that demand (and reward) trustworthy behavior also expect you to deliver a personalized marketing experience.

When I mentioned the value of seeing the shape of trust across surveys and reports, this is what I mean. According to Salesforce research, 76% of buyers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations. 84% say being treated like a person—not a number—is very important to winning their business. 59% say tailored engagement based on past interactions is very important to winning their business.

Don’t you need lots of customer data to meet these customers expectations? You do, but it’s probably a lot less than you expect, and might be a different type of data than you’ve used.

Customer trust and personalization are not at odds. In fact, trust seems to be the key to unlocking effective personalization.

In a customer experience trends report from Acquia, we see that about 80% of respondents agreed that “brands should not be able to use my personal data to try and market different things to me”. In that same survey, almost exactly the same amount said they would be “more loyal to a brand that showed they really understood me and what I was looking for”.

This is where phrasing is important and can illuminate opportunity. “Brands should not be able to use my personal data to try and market different things to me”.

What we don’t want is for brands to take personal data and abuse it by spamming us with irrelevant messages, using our inboxes as target practice for generic sales pitches. Instead, trusting the brand with our data means expecting a carefully tailored experience in return. And if we get that, we’ll be loyal, because it’s so rare.

So, we’ve talked about what trust gets us when it’s present, and how ethical personalization becomes feasible and effective when combined with customer trust. Let’s look at some aspects of trust that you can leverage to drum some up for yourself.

Trust is control. 92% of consumers are more likely to trust businesses with their data when they’re given control over what’s collected. It’s not impossible to get customer data ethically, it just comes with expectations. Depending on where you are in the world, you may be bound by law to offer this form of trust already. It won’t help you to wait until you’re forced.

As you adjust to this reality, the type of data you collect and use will necessarily shift. One way of thinking about this new ethically-sourced, customer-controlled data is called “zero-party data”. Instead of data being purchased or inferred, zero-party data is intentionally and proactively shared directly from the customer.

Trust is also value exchange. 50% or more of consumers will willingly give you personal data if it leads to a more personalized in-store or online experience. In another study, 79% of consumers say they’re willing to share data if it clearly benefits them. 60% will share more data for personalized benefits and discounts.

The key is that you need to make the value clear to the customer so that they can decide if they trust you with their data.

So, tell people why you need the data to create the tailored experience they want. Take care of the data and allow them to control it, then follow through on your promises.

A personal example of this value exchange in action is my willingness to give Spotify all the data they could ever desire, so long as they can continue to pump out features like the Discover Weekly playlist. I’m a huge music nerd, I listen to music all the time, talk about it all the time, I have a podcast about music where I talk about music. I mean, this is some of my most intimate data. And yet, Spotify can have as much as it wants. I will answer any questions they have, because they keep delivering valuable personal experiences.

So, what does this look like in practice? What can you offer someone for their data and build trust at the same time?

For each of these types of trust, I’ll give you some things to try based on your ability to deliver on your brand promises.

For starters, it’s trivially easy to offer a discount or coupon for an email address and explicit opt-in. The value is easy to describe and understand. This is not “subscribe to our newsletter and you might possibly enjoy one of the emails by accident”. This is an email address for direct value.

From there, you can begin collecting that zero-party, preference-oriented data to provide a personalized content experience. This can often be done in an onboarding process. Remember to provide customers a way to control their data, and then deliver on your promise.

The hardest level is what Spotify’s doing: leveraging behavioral and personal data for AI-driven recommendations. Doing this well is not trivial even with all the data in the world, but remember accumulating all that information relies on a trusting relationship.

Now, we’ve touched on this, but let’s go deeper to see the opportunity. Trust is transparency. Here’s where you really begin to go past the technological and design-oriented aspects of trust generation and into the heart of a business’s culture.

Transparency is a bit like a muscle in that you don’t want to wait until you need to lift a car to save someone’s life to start doing bicep curls. The time to go rip it in the gym was all the time prior to now.

Similarly, a catastrophic event like data loss or a security breach isn’t the best time to try out transparency. It turns out, situations like that are opportunities to gain trust through transparent communication, taking ownership and caring for your customers.

45% of consumers said a brand would never be able to regain their trust after displaying unethical behavior or “suffering a controversy”, and 58% say they don’t trust a brand until they’ve seen real-world proof that it’s kept its promises.

In these data points, what I really want you to see is that at least half of buyers are willing to let you regain their trust, and that 58% can conceptualize “real-world proof” that you’re keeping your promises. With clear communication and some follow through, you can weather these PR disasters.

For instance, Zoom did an awesome job this year of dealing with tremendous security-related pressure. Instead of pretending the issues didn’t exist or that the demands would go away eventually, they basically came out and said, “Ok, yes, everyone is right about this. We can do better. Give us 90 days to fix it.”

They took ownership of the problem and gave people a timeframe to hold them accountable.

You can also be building trust well before anything like that happens. It’s not difficult, it just requires cultural change (and maybe some coordination with your legal department).

DuckDuckGo is a great example of a company that proactively builds trust through transparency. It’s the search engine that prioritizes privacy, but it has a culture of transparency that shows up everywhere. For instance, take a look at their Privacy Policy. You’ll find extremely readable, simple, non-legalese descriptions of everything you need to know, including headings like ‘Why You Should Care’ and ‘Information Not Collected’.

Clarity like this is what feels like transparency to the customers you want to trust you.

So, let’s look at some ways you can cultivate transparency that leads to trust.

First, audit your customer communication and earnestly solicit feedback to improve every customer touch point. Don’t just send out a survey and let it sit in a spreadsheet. Actually spend time engaging with customers about making their lives better, then make their lives better, than show them how their feedback led to that change.

To wade into scarier territory, start thinking of how you can be publicly transparent. For instance, respond openly and honestly to reviews or social media posts, whether they’re angry pants or really kind. Stop replying to negative tweets with “check your DMs”. Instead, have the conversation in public.

Finally, a proven form of real transparency is to publish third-party research that verifies you’re living out your brand promises. Remember that 58% want real-world proof? Give it to them. And if it turns out you’re not keeping your promises, time to go to work. Transparency can help you gain trust then, too.

Finally, trust is authentic social engagement. I say authentic because it’s critical to understand you can’t just corporately virtue signal without any follow-up. Hopefully that’s more clear than ever in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

A post on Instagram with some hashtags isn’t authentic social engagement unless it’s part of an intentional, funded program to engage with a community for the good of the cause.

81% of buyers cite a top factor in purchase consideration is whether they can trust the brand to “do what’s right”. Now the last several years have shown us, especially in America, that the concept of doing what’s right is widely disputed.

What you can take from this is that customers are paying attention to what you do as a company, and that your customer base should align with your values (and vice versa). People want to believe in companies—nearly half of buyers believed brands could do more to cure societal issues than governments themselves!

And while this might be a little misguided—and perhaps local to certain countries—it underscores the notion that businesses can be more than just profit-generating machines for the wealthy, and that your customers want to come along with you in impacting the culture.

A great example of this is Dove, who started a paternity leave fund in an effort to raise over $1 million for American fathers over a span of two years. The fund will provide fathers who don’t have access to paternity leave with $5,000 grants so they can be home to spend time with their new children.

For those not from America, this is necessary because our country does not protect the needs of new parents to raise their children after birth, and instead relies on the benevolence of the parents’ employers to determine whether this critical part of a child’s development can involve one or more parents.

Dove says, "Working dads shouldn't have to choose between their children and a paycheck—because when they take paternity leave, it benefits families, workplaces and communities.” But this is more than talk because on Dove’s own website they commit to a specific amount of money in a specific time frame and give a specific plan for how they’re disbursing the funds. This is transparency and authentic social engagement together, building trust.

Another example of authentic social engagement is Heineken, who teamed up with psychologist Dr. Helena Rubinstein, lead behavioural scientist at Innovia Technology, to experiment at ten bars around Reading and Manchester in the UK.

The experiment was to test the “When You Drive, Never Drink’”campaign. Dr. Rubinstein’s team devised 20 individual prompts, such as promoting alternative alcohol-free drinks at the bar, incentivising drivers by encouraging them to make a commitment not to drink and rewarding the whole group when the driver didn’t drink, placing informational prompts around and outside the bar and leveraging social influence to make not-drinking-if-driving more socially acceptable.

It’s authentic and meaningful because Heineken is literally eating into their own profits by discouraging drinking by the designated driver. Their willingness to see the bigger picture and meaningfully address it fosters trust.

So how can you engage socially?

To start, empower employees to donate their time and energy to causes they care about. Salesforce participates in the Pledge 1% program, but the format isn’t important. What is important is that you start by building trust with your own team first, dubbing them unofficial brand ambassadors by giving them time away from work (and money) to impact their communities in a positive way.

To push on this further, you can empower your employees to speak out about issues that matter to them without fear of retribution from your company. It means your people can choose to show up as the fully human creatures they are with a wild array of genuine concerns, and you won’t try to shut them up. This isn’t about tolerating toxic or abusive people, it’s about building trust by being a company that trusts its people.

Finally, sometimes you may need to take a public stance on an issue, and it might affect your bottom line. Your willingness to stand for the oppressed or push for societal change that benefits the underprivileged is honored by the people who want to trust your brand.

And critically, it’s an important way to be in our world. Authentic social engagement indicates your company is able to understand that being motivated purely by profit and growth harms our collective reality, and that organizations of human beings are powerful.

When companies stepped up in 2020 to fill in for horrendous government failure, we saw real ways that businesses can innovate and move quickly in a way that helps society. Moving fast and breaking things isn’t how you build trust. Moving fast to fix things is.

And isn’t that the mark you want to leave on the world, individually and collectively? Trust in the future will be an indicator of who invested in humanity, in society, and in culture today. It just so happens it’ll also make your marketing more effective and your customer relationships more valuable.