What Brands Teach Us About Trust-Building

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Candy Cane Crunch Donut Square.
Candy Cane Crunch Donut Square. Credit: Dunkin' Donuts
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Whether it's Trump's assertion that "Nobody has more respect for women than I do," or Clinton's refusal to release transcripts from her paid speeches, trust and leadership are top of mind. As November 8 nears, each day brings a new flurry of election-related headlines, tweets, and news leaks that chip away at our faith in each prospective U.S. president.

Elections, of course, are not the only arena in which trust is crucial. Successful CEOs and managers thrive because others, from their subordinates to shareholders, have trust in them. In fact, it is likely the most critical element of continued growth and success in business. So while we see trust in government hit historic lows, top brands have continued to excel in growing and maintaining public confidence -- to such an extent that business is now more trusted than government across the globe.

What leadership lessons can be learned from these top brands? The three approaches below, gleaned from over two-plus decades of counseling marketers, are useful tactics for any leader, from Donald and Hillary to a novice manager or a seasoned CEO.

Build credibility by promoting honesty. Learning from the transactional, self-directed and anonymous services of its forerunners (think Craigslist), Airbnb broke new ground by optimizing its user feedback process to create what it dubs "a community built on trust." To promote honest, accurate feedback, participants have 14 days to review one another, and reviews are only revealed after both parties have completed their assessment. Guests can also leave private feedback for hosts, delivered when the public review is received. This comprehensive and reliable peer-rating system legitimizes the service. Honesty and self-awareness also go a long way in cultivating trust in leadership. For example, Jason Goldberg, co-founder of fab.com, is a prolific blogger, and has used candor to his advantage, detailing his business failures publicly in hopes that others will learn from him. With all on display, he proves there's no shame in sharing setbacks. Transparency not only provides the opportunity to relate and connect, but is a way to establish (or reestablish) authority.

Set clear expectations to avoid under delivering. Dunkin' Donuts sells more than 4.5 million cups of coffee every day, making it the second-most popular coffee seller in America. Dunkin' excels because it delivers on what it promises: "all day, every day coffee and baked goods," positioning itself as a reliable, unpretentious product going against the grain of a snobby caffeine culture. Simple, consistent, straightforward promises. When they do fall short, they accept responsibility and apologize, in public, quickly -- for proof, just skim through the brand's Twitter feed. The takeaway: Like Dunkin' Donuts, leaders should remain true to their character and refrain from overpromising. When there is an issue, go out of your way to acknowledge it. With no unwelcome surprises, leaders are able to forge a connection built on consistency and dependability.

Create bonds based on mutual trust and respect. Sometimes, the best way to get is to give. Sephora, one of the most beloved beauty brands, gives a lot to consumers. From its awesome Beauty Insider program that acknowledges customer loyalty with special status and birthday bonuses, to plentiful free samples, as well as a no-questions-asked-within 60 days return policy, Sephora sets a high bar in the category for generosity. But its in-store experience is where the brand truly cements its bond with consumers, allowing all who walk in to try, test and sample every product, with no obligation or pressure to buy. Go to a Sephora at 6 p.m. on a Friday, and you'll see a store buzzing with women applying blush and lip gloss. This LVMH-owned brand is growing, opening its 400th store this year. Compare that to the traditional department store experience, and its obvious that trust begets trust. To cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship, be patient, err on the side of more, and give people the benefit of the doubt when possible. Remember that it takes real effort to earn loyalty, but once you earn it, it pays off.

Similar to brands, all leaders, whether elected officials or department heads, must actively build and maintain trust. The good news is that we don't expect perfection from brands -- or people, for that matter -- but demonstrating transparency, authenticity and mutual respect goes a long way in establishing a bond that cements.