Once again, the Sunday New York Times provides the stimulus for a post about trust. This week, an engaging story began with the headline, “Quenching Consumers’ Thirst for ‘Authentic’ Brands”. The reporting investigated how, particularly for online marketing and sales, retailers and product manufacturers are trying to connect to the vocabulary of “authenticity” and the traditions of the brand that trigger consumer enthusiasm and favoritism in a crowded global marketplace. Various studies and reports were described in which consumers were shown to find that “traditional Cajun” red beans and rice and “Grandma’s” zucchini cookies triggered more favorable reactions—the diners bought more often and said the products tasted better.
But, how are these vocabulary selections triggering these reactions? How does the descriptive wording change the velocity or the volume with which consumer audiences select a related product or service? It is all a matter of trust.
While most research, including the research described in the article, often characterizes trust as a subjective feeling, trust is, in fact, a very different substance—it is the outcome of decisions we make that are informed by our prior experience. When we have a positive experience, or connect to the histories of the positive stories of others, we are actually creating a record. It describes an actor, an action, an object, and an evaluation. But those elements of the record are also doing something else—they are creating a set of criteria (you might call them rules) for what you may look for the next time you are given the opportunity to consume prepared foods. We hold those rules in our memory, an inventory to be called upon when we next undertake to eat, or buy jeans, or shop for outdoor adventure clothing (all examples noted in the NYT article).
Then, when we go looking at the menu in the restaurant (to use just one example), we are searching for cues that connect to, and call up, those earlier records. A positive connection (such as the wonderful taste, texture, and surrounding love that embraced experiencing Grandma’s cookies) is actually doing something important. You are calling upon your stored inventory of rules for good food and using the information presented in the menu to actually calculate an outcome: will these cookies meet my rules for a good cookie? A single word “Grandma’s” can actually connect to an entire portfolio of rules (and the related experiences) and increase the velocity with which you qualify the menu description as a potential choice for your selection.
Was your Grandma a terrible cook? If so, then the outcome just described is more unlikely. You may benignly smile, think to yourself “Not a chance!”, and move to the chocolate cake. But each of us has a propensity to seek and select products that connect to our sense memories of favorable outcomes. We may even embrace and rely upon the sense memories of favorable outcomes from trusted knowledge sources: “My Dad always said old-fashioned Cajun was the best kind of red beans and rice”.
So, when consumers seek authenticity, each of us are actually seeking connections to past favorable experiences, whether recorded by ourselves or our trusted knowledge sources, and the related rules we will rely upon to evaluate the product or service that is being pitched.
But the article goes further. What happens if a newco business does not have tradition or authenticity? How does it create trust in the brand and, in doing so, create customer loyalty, forging ‘tradition’ one transaction at a time? The NYT article cites one successful example: supply chain transparency. Patagonia maintains a blog that tells how and where their raw materials originate and how they create their products. According to the NYT story, the blog is exceptional in that it shares both the good and the bad news about their product supply chain. That kind of factual “provenance” contrasts markedly to 20th century brands that were ‘caught’ using child labor to create their products (and other ethically upsetting stories).
This strategy of disclosing “provenance” does something important—it creates a story of authenticity that the consumer can embrace. In doing so, the consumer is quietly filtering the story into a set of rules that will be accessible when the next product decisions are required to be made. When we think about what we are beginning to demand for digital information products—and our increasing concerns about the supply chains through which those information products are assembled and produced, we realize that it is the same decision process. Transparency about the provenance can be a vital, and successful, strategy for winning a consumer’s trust. It’s the next best thing to enjoying Grandma’s cookies.