Neuroscience

The art and neuroscience of building brand trust

In Feature by Neil AdlerLeave a Comment

Marketers would do well to pay attention to how our brains have evolved, writes Neil Adler with Daryl Weber.


We humans have evolved highly sensitive gauges for judging the intention of others. Throughout our evolution we have had to decide between trusting someone else or finding other ways to achieve our goals. And often, that decision could mean life or death.

The decision to trust is based on a prediction of whether or not your trust will be returned. This decision can depend on the conditions involved. For example, I may not trust my neighbour to borrow my electric saw until he brings my hammer back. In a brain-imaging study researchers showed that decisions to trust can be conditional because they found there are distinct neural pathways that underlie this decision – which are different from pathways for trusting unconditionally.

Let’s look at some approaches marketers use to encourage consumers to take the risk of buying their products or services and, in time, move from conditional towards unconditional trust of a brand.

Everything is branding

Our brains are constantly learning from things we encounter in our environment, and tagging them as either positive or negative. Throughout evolution, this helped us make quick and efficient decisions on what we can trust, and what we should be wary of. It is likely that brands are treated in much the same way – we build trust through many interactions and encounters over time.

In the book Brand Seduction – How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, Daryl Weber describes how the unconscious mind is constantly learning from and evaluating the environment, and in doing so picks up on many subtle cues from brands, often without the person realising it. This means that each interaction and encounter a consumer has with your brand is part of the trust-building process. Every customer service communication, press mentions and brand sighting – even “who” the brand is seen with – combines to create a perception of your brand in the consumer’s mind. These elements also accumulate over time to give your brand a sense of trustworthiness, or not.

This means trust is not something you can build overnight, or in a single marketing campaign. It happens over the course of years, through every touchpoint and interaction consumers have with the brand.

Familiarity can breed trust

You may have heard of the mere-exposure effect (MEE), also known as the familiarity principle. This is the idea that people tend to have a preference for things they are familiar with. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. If we’ve experienced something before, and it has not harmed us, it must be OK. Of course the opposite may also be true – if something has harmed us, greater familiarity will result in increased dislike.

A study on visual attention supports MEE as influential in increasing the chances of building trust. Findings showed that participants were more likely to view faces as trustworthy that had been presented in previous trials, compared to novel faces. Importantly, this effect was not due to participants recalling which faces they had already seen.

This is why mass brands, such as Coca-Cola, enjoy a level a trust simply by being mass. By being seen around in life – in ads, on the shelf, with people holding/wearing/consuming the product, etc – we’ve grown familiar with it. We feel confident that a mass brand will be around over the long-term and that is reassuring. This in turn means it already has more trust than a totally new brand, or a private label brand we don’t know.

Being part of the in-group

We have a natural tendency to trust those who are like us. We form tribes, prefer those in our tribe (“in-groups”), and think negatively of those not in it (“out-groups”). This has been shown in studies to happen even when it’s obvious that the groups created are totally random.

In addition, there is support from brain-imaging studies showing neurological differences between in-groups and out-groups. For example, even under minor differentiating conditions, medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activity was found to increase when participants identified as part of the in-group. These results show the role of the MPFC in social categorisation, whether this is for newly formed groups in this case, or existing groups.

“The only way to build meaningful trust is through what your brand does.”Neil Adler

You can see this approach being used when brands pick one side of an issue despite fear of alienating the other side, such as a political topic, or even supporting a local sports team. By picking a side, they show themselves as part of the in-group with those that agree, and can then earn their goodwill and trust.

It’s more than what you say

Imagine being in a store, and in the process of telling you about an item the salesperson keeps saying “trust me”. What is your likely reaction? The tactic will probably backfire as you’re less inclined to trust someone that tells you to do so. The far better route is to build your trust through actions – by helping you pick what’s best for you, without trying to up-sell you to a more expensive item.

The same is true for how you market your brands. You can’t simply tell consumers to trust you directly. Promises and expectations set through advertising are nothing if you don’t follow through with them in your brand’s actions and the product experience you provide.

Talk is cheap, and with all the noise out there in today’s media landscape, it keeps getting cheaper. So the only way to build meaningful trust is through what your brand does. Actions speak volumes.

Once you have trust, make sure you keep it. It’s hard to build but easily broken. A consumer can have years of implicitly trusting your brand (without thinking about it too much), but that trust can be lost in a flash.

Volkswagen had built up a very strong brand for decades, but all that goodwill and equity was thrown into question with their recent environmental cheating scandal. Or think of Nike and its sweatshop controversy, or Apple and its Chinese factory working conditions.

Of course, these are some of the strongest brands in the world, and they have been able to overcome these breaches of trust. But smaller brands with less deeply seated brand love may not be so lucky.

Trust starts from within

Trust is not sustainable if it’s not authentic. You can’t effectively express it outwardly, without truly having it internally. Trust must be baked into the corporate culture with principled people who treat customers fairly and respectfully. When that happens, trust will naturally spread outward to the consumer. On the other hand, when it’s inauthentic, consumers’ keen ability to gauge trust will probably sniff you out at some point.

By steadily and consistently taking the right actions, you can build trust for your brand over the long term. Remember, trust is highly valuable, and not to be taken lightly. So once you have this precious commodity, guard it with your life. The life of your brand may just depend on it.

Note: A version of the article appeared here and in the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association quarterly magazine, Insights.

About the Author
Neil Adler

Neil Adler

New York-based Neil Adler has a masters in neuropsychology and a decade of experience in pharma marketing and advertising. He is pioneering the integration of the neuro and behavioural sciences into the creative process.

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