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Global Thought Leader, Founder and CEO of Fifth Dimension, Lyndall Spooner, Shares Insights on why Brands Must Look Beyond Trust as a Customer Experience Metric

Lyndall Spooner, founder and CEO of leading strategic research agency, Fifth Dimension, has delivered compelling research proving that brands that are tracking how much they are trusted by consumers are placing their trust in the wrong metric.

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Lyndall Spooner, founder and CEO of leading strategic research agency, Fifth Dimension, has delivered compelling research proving that brands that are tracking how much they are trusted by consumers are placing their trust in the wrong metric.

“Brand trust is a hot topic right now. In recent weeks we have seen the latest publication of the most trusted brands in Australia, and at the same time, I have been asked to present to numerous corporations in Australia our cutting edge research involving trust.

Companies that previously promoted brand trust to be a strong brand health indicator are now questioning the value of measuring brand trust based on the science,” Spooner said.

“Trust between a consumer and a corporation is very different to trust between two people or the trust people have in the government or their doctor.  Trust is an emotional brain state that allows us to be vulnerable to another person, believing they will not take advantage of us or cause us harm.

When we trust people, we can share with them our secrets. When we trust people in government, we hand them power hoping they will act in our best interests. Our relationship with companies is very different.”

Fifth Dimension conducted three independent experiments over the course of 18 months, each one diving even deeper into understanding the limitations of measuring brand trust. These three experiments produced three key insights:

  1. Brand trust does not align to consumer behaviour, it does not predict customer value or prove customers are emotionally connected to your brand,
  2. Your company’s likelihood of being listed as one of Australia’s most trusted brands can be accurately predicted by an algorithm; and
  3. In a technically disrupted world trust has shifted from companies to people and technology as increasingly we buy from brands we don’t even know.

“Our first experiment was never designed to focus on brand trust. We were modelling the accuracy of eight customer experience (CX) metrics to predict consumer behaviour. The research was conducted with over 5,000 consumers and customer experiences were measured across multiple brands and industries.

We analysed the statistical strength of more than 28,000 CX ratings and discovered that brand trust was the weakest brand metric of all metrics we tested to predict customer behaviour for all brands in all industries measured,” Spooner explained.

“The fundamental flaw in asking consumers if they trust a brand is that the brand trust question has two meanings, based on the respondents’ mindset.

“If you ask a consumer if they trust a brand, 60 percent interpret the question as asking if the brand is capable to do what it promises, while 40 percent interpret the question as asking about the character of the brand, if the brand is ethical and honest in how it operates.”

Widely respected, Spooner has over 25 years of experience in consulting and research services and is considered an expert in the field of strategy, research and customer experience. Fifth Dimension is a highly revered and globally focused industry leading strategic research and consulting agency that has amassed a distinguished portfolio of well known clients including: Westpac, Coles, HCF, Telstra, Foxtel, Colgate and the Commonwealth Bank.

“The way in which people interpret the brand trust question has a major bearing on the results of whether or not they trust a brand. People with a character mindset are 88 percent more likely to say they distrust multiple brands across multiple industries, while consumers with a capability mindset are 30 percent more likely to trust a brand, and this is when both groups have the same level of positive customer experiences with a brand,” Spooner said.

“In our research we found 66 percent of consumers said they had no reason for giving the brand trust ratings they gave, this is because it was considered to be the hardest question to answer of all the CX metrics we tested.

“The problem with asking ‘to what extent do you trust brand A?’ is a lack of context. If you were to ask consumers if they trust a bank they will probably say no, but if you ask them if they trust a bank to look after their money they will probably say yes.

“As Rachel Botsman, the trust fellow at the Oxford University Saiid Business school says, you should never ask a brand trust question without context. In our experiment respondents told us that a brand trust question with no context is not only difficult to answer it is also a question they are likely to fabricate a response to. So the data is made up.

“Imagine finding that respondents have just told you, and our modelling has proven, that their ratings of brand trust have nothing to do with their experiences with those brands. But what if I also told you the level of trust consumers say they have in your brand is predictable with a clever algorithm, and that algorithm does not need to know what consumers think of your brand or what your brand stands for.”

According to Spooner, Fifth Dimension followed up its initial work with a deeper dive into brand trust. In this second experiment they replicated the methodologies of several well known brand trust studies and looked to see if they could reverse engineer the results; could they predict the brands most likely to be nominated as trusted, the level of trust in a brand on a ratings scale, and the ranking of trust across brands?

“We found it was relatively easy to predict levels of unprompted and prompted brand trust, as well as accurately predict the rankings of brands within and across categories.  That is because brand trust is not about emotional connection or vulnerability. Your likelihood to be nominated as a trusted brand or given a higher brand trust score on a rating scale can be predicted from measures of your brand’s presence in the market.  In other words, salience,” Spooner said.

According to Spooner, brand trust is not about individual brands, it is more influenced by industries and clusters of brands.

“Your brand’s presence in the market is driven by the industry you are in. Brands that frequently engage with consumers, such as supermarkets and mobile phone providers, have a much higher market presence than brands that hardly ever engage with consumers, such as funeral directors,” Spooner added.

“Brands that are seen to advertise a lot also have a much stronger market presence, as do brands that are well established and have a large customer base.  As consumers, we see these brands and  hear about these brands during our day to day lives and are therefore more likely to be able to recall the names of these brands if asked to list brands we know.

“That is why we can use these brand presence factors to predict brand trust. When a respondent is asked to list the companies they trust in a survey, they are not telling you the brands they trust the most, they are telling you the brands that most come to mind, and the brands that most come to mind are the ones with a stronger brand presence.

“In our experiment we asked respondents to nominate the brands they trust and then later we asked them to rate the extent to which they trusted brands we listed. If you compare what is called the unprompted levels of trust and brand rankings with the prompted levels of brand trust and rankings, you see very different results.

“In both cases, unprompted and prompted brand trust can be predicted with an equation using brand presence metrics. But the equation differs by what elements of brand presence have more impact between predicting unpromoted and prompted brand trust.

The brands listed as trusted by respondents unprompted are not the most trusted brands when brands are all rated on the same ratings scale. To publish a list of the most trusted brands without actually measuring the level of trust in all brands reported is misleading.

“Just because I cannot recall a brand at the time you ask me a question does not mean I do not trust the brand – it means the brand is not as salient and therefore statistically is less likely to be recalled. It is not statistically less likely to be trusted.”

Spooner states that it is also important to note that when we compare the unprompted and prompted results, we see industry patterns.

“All of a sudden, smaller brands in trusted industries gain just as much trust as the bigger brands in their industry, yet they were not listed as trusted brands in the unprompted list. Additionally,  brands in less trusted industries go down in the rankings together,” Spooner emphasised.

“Supermarkets generally sit at the top, telecommunications companies come next, and then come the banks – the bigger brands with bigger budgets and market share dominate.

“Even if we get people to rate brands on a trust scale, that data is unlikely to be a strong predictor of future sales. This is because consumer trust has shifted to technology and peers – and both influences introduce new brands to consumers.”

In a third experiment looking into actual brand choices, Fifth Dimension found 42 percent of brand choices made across a range of products in banking, telecommunications and insurance were with brands that were never originally in a consumer’s consideration set. Instead, these brands were introduced to the consumer during their path to purchase.

“Imagine you have spent all of your marketing efforts trying to build your brand trust scores only to lose the customer to a brand they have never heard of before. How did an unknown brand beat my trusted brand?” Spooner continued.

“You can spend all the money you want trying to build your brand trust scores and getting respondents to answer a question on who they trust, but you are only collecting useless information that has no relationship to your customer spend or potential future sales.

“The reality is that the brands you are going to lose to are not going to come up in the list of trusted brands because they are the smaller and more innovative brands that you are failing to monitor.

“If you want to measure brand trust at least ask the question in context. But even better, don’t measure brand trust, measure the attributes that will actually drive sales – unless of course you are in government and in that case make sure your actions prove you are worthy of the trust people placed in you.”

Fifth Dimension has been recognised for its ground breaking work, being honoured as a 2021 Confirmit ACE (Achievement in Customer Excellence) Award in the Innovation category, a 2020 Confirmit AIR Insight and Research Award Winner, as well as being included in the highly respected 2020 GreenBook Research Industry Trends (GRIT) Top 25 Strategic Consultancies, as one of the world’s most innovative companies to make the list.

Since its launch in 2006, Fifth Dimension’s four pillars of expertise have continued to evolve new capabilities to embrace uncertainty and drive the development of market leading approaches: strategy, experience, research and technology.

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Written by Tony Delgado

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