That’s something we say around the office, and it’s an idea that most marketers can get behind. After all, we’re consumers too. How many of us want to do business with companies we don’t trust? In a highly commoditized market, trust is a key way to differentiate a brand. Offering consumers transparency and fair treatment keeps them coming back. It helps turn customers into brand champions.
With so much at stake, one might naturally think companies would be jumping on the trust bandwagon, and certainly many have committed to an impressive level of accountability. However, others prefer to pay lip service to the idea while secretly hoping no one is paying too much attention to what they’re actually doing. In a world where social media exposes customer-unfriendly business practices literally in a matter of seconds, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Let’s look at few high-profile examples of big brands that have gotten into deep trouble by falling short of the trust placed in them:
Bank of America
Back in 2009, Bank of America debuted a feel-good TV spot, “Keep Moving Forward,” that celebrated the American spirit of progress and portrayed itself as the bank that would be there to help keep that forward momentum going.
Later the same year, NBC Nightly News aired a segment on Private Jordan Cid, a seventeen-year-old US serviceman, who racked up $1,785 in service fees in only five months thanks to the bank’s exorbitant $35 per transaction overdraft fee on debit card purchases. Private Cid’s story—and others like it—ignited a firestorm of criticism, as well as a class-action lawsuit that was settled in 2011 for $410 million. While the bank has worked hard to repair its reputation, a quick perusal of #bankofamerica will reveal how much success they’ve had at it. I leave you to form your own opinions.
If you visit the corporate responsibility page of retailer American Apparel, you’ll find inspiring examples of how the company has stepped up to help others in times of need. There’s a timeline of worthy causes the retailer has supported with donations of its clothing—from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to help for the victims of Colorado wild fires in 2012.
Conspicuously absent from the list is Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm that wrought $65 billion worth of damage on the eastern seaboard of the US and killed 285 people. The reason? American Apparel was too busy trying to cash in on the disaster. While the storm still raged, the company launched a sale using #sandysale and sent out an e-mail to customers inviting them to come shop if they were bored. The sale specifically targeted states that were in the path of Sandy. Needless to say, the social media ‘verse was not impressed.
It’s hard to tell how much of American Apparel’s financial woes stem from this incident and other PR disasters. The company certainly faces a range of challenges, including a soft economy, high unemployment among its young target demographic, and upper management chaos. One thing is certain, though: #sandysale cannot have helped.
Recent revelations that Facebook altered its newsfeed algorithm in order to conduct secret mood experiments on as many as 700,000 of its users has caused an enormous backlash that amazingly seems to have taken the people behind the experiment by surprise.
While it can be argued that what Facebook did isn’t technically illegal because of certain rights the company claims in its terms of service, that hasn’t stopped an online privacy advocacy group from filing a complaint with the FTC. It also hasn’t prevented outrage from spreading like wild fire across the Internet. At the height of the story on June 29, there were over 23,000 tweets discussing “Facebook experiment,” and if you google the term “Facebook mood experiment,” you can spend the rest of the day reading articles and blog posts filled with concern and condemnation.
Facebook is of course the largest social media platform with over 1.23 billion users as of December 2013. Will experiment-gate have any effect on Facebook’s future? It’s too early to know. But social media is always changing, with new platforms and technologies constantly being introduced, and it’s a pretty fair bet that most people would prefer to spend time where they aren’t being manipulated without their knowledge or consent.
What’s the takeaway?
In a world connected by social media, brands can’t fake trustworthiness, and those that try will be quickly exposed. Companies that spend more time trying to coax consumers into liking, sharing or forwarding their content than they do earning trust through real, sustainable interactions will learn a hard lesson that their efforts are wasted.
Trust is something that has to be legitimately—and continually—earned, throughout the entire customer experience. It’s definitely an investment, but one that has the potential to pay off in stronger customer loyalty, more brand advocacy, and an improved bottom line for the companies who not only say the right things, but do them too.
Stay classy New York.