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The Ascent of Trust

Nick Elsom

There have been a slew of articles recently discussing the concept of Trust. Maybe I notice them more because Trust is at the heart of the FourForty proposition, so I unconsciously seek affirmation that we’re doing something right. Instead though, potentially warm feelings of validation are mostly replaced with tutting, frowning, and ultimately a reach for the keyboard. So what’s my problem?

Zero sum

The problem is that Trust is being hijacked. It’s being seen as a concept to be owned by a department as part of a drive towards transparency. And no, the wearisome irony of a department for transparency is not lost.

This belief that Trust belongs somewhere - current thinking suggests that’s somewhere in IT - is fuelled by the growth in corporate dependence on data. In essence, data transparency IS trust. So much so that; “Once one company is trusted, others are immediately perceived by consumers as distrusted. Once one company is transparent, the lack of transparency from another company is immediately visible and loathed”*

This definitive, zero-sum statement came from a recent article on the CIO website. And it’s a satisfyingly binary statement on the currently unstable, even volatile relationship between consumers and companies. Trust in corporates and institutions is at an all-time low. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer depressingly states that; “despite a strong global economy and near full employment, none of the four societal institutions that the study measures—government, business, NGOs and media—is trusted”**. Fakery and the facade of ‘doing good’ appears to be disguising questionable behaviours, most notably among the newly-demonised big tech and social media titans, but elsewhere too.

The problem with this concept is that it sees Trust as a separate, distinct, functional aspect of what a company does in respect of its customers. Back to the CIO article; “Much like price and quality became second-class differentiators giving way to experience and engagement as first-class differentiators around the millennium, trust and transparency are now new differentiators and have entered the corporate arena unseating differentiation capabilities such as experience and engagement. Trust and transparency are presenting as the new first-class differentiators, with experience, engagement, price and quality all now settling in as second-class”*

This argument, that evolutionary, winner-takes-all Darwinian principles are at play is somewhat misleading. Price & Quality have not been rendered obsolete by Experience & Engagement, however comforting that idea may be for a Director of Experience & Engagement. So - no. Trust & Transparency really hasn’t wielded its mighty hammer and smashed its way to the top of the heap. It feels rather remedial to have to say so, but ALL these elements are vital to corporate health, vitality and commercial success.

Trust IS a vital evolution

Taking these same concepts, we can say that price and quality are vital table stakes, without which there isn’t even a business. Experience and engagement are signs of a maturing business, capable of hearing and adapting to its customers’ needs. And Trust is indeed a big one. It’s a distillation of everything a company does, and how it does so. Much like a malt whisky is a reflection of its location, its ingredients, the experience and taste of the distiller - and much more besides. The Trust a company is capable of building is a reflection of ALL these elements, rather than a hegemony of one.

*‘Chief Trust Officers: Who, Why and When’ -

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