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Trust in the age of anticipation

Credit: FreeImages.com/James Williams

We're in the midst of a pandemic of plummeting trust — of government, of our employers, of our neighbors, of social media, of businesses that handle our financial data.

Facebook, to take an example ripped from the headlines, has suffered a loss of public trust recently due to ongoing media coverage of the Cambridge Analytica incident involving the misuse of private data of up to 87 million Facebook users. If data is the oil of the internet economy, as the spills proliferate, the revelation of social and search media's damaging impact on free democratic elections in the U.S. and possibly the EU could be the Exxon Valdez that finally prompts more privacy protection policy, regulation and corporate activism.

By every means possible, we need to up our game in the restoration of trust in institutions, brands and each other, which requires recognition that one of our most vital social and economic lubricants is drying up. With trust imploding everywhere, innovation stalls, civic participation falls, violence and political partisanship increase, brand loyalty weakens, consumer confidence is shaken, and countless other social ills befall a public demoralized and disoriented by their inability to parse what can be trusted from what cannot.

We should begin by understanding that trust itself is undergoing radical change in reaction to the systems and social transactions in which it operates. Rachel Botsman, whom I interviewed at the World Business Forum last November, explains in her book, "Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Could Drive Us Apart," that today's trust is distributed across platforms and among strangers, flowing horizontally instead of vertically through institutions, authorities and elites.

As the latter are sidelined by, among other things, the rise of P2P (peer-to-peer) businesses and sharing and platform economics, they must fight to regain credibility. Botsman recommends they become more transparent, inclusive, dynamic and personalized; more adept at forming new business models and demonstrating new trust-engendering behaviors; and more accountable when they break the rules.

Our IBM iX global Brand Belonging study, in partnership with research partner Ipsos, revealed something else about trust. Consumers closely associate trust in a brand with enjoying life and with the excitement they feel when anticipating their next experience with the brand. Botsman's definition of trust — "a confident relationship with the unknown" — helps us understand why trust is now entwined with the new, innovative experiences and content that the best brands provide. Much like a roller coaster ride, our pleasure is heightened by anticipation of what's just around the curve and buttressed by our belief in the sturdy design of the roller coaster itself.

This would explain the immense popularity of Netflix, a top performer in "Trustworthy Excitement," one of six Experience Drivers of Brand Belonging. Think for a moment about Netflix's pre-roll video previews, their "countdown" to the next in the series feature, their industry-leading social media presence where buzz builds, and their ever-expanding pipeline of new shows. As one reporter put it, Netflix's most underrated power is anticipation.

Not merely a consumer mindset, anticipation is one of humanity's most common affective states, as we increasingly experience life as a drive toward what's next. According to one academic study, anticipation is the palpable sense that things could be (all) right if we identify new opportunities, reconfiguring "the possible".

Tesla, also relatively high-scoring in "Trustworthy Excitement" in the Brand Belonging Index, is a master of the meta-narrative of new possibilities, engendering breathless anticipation of its next moonshot and a more sustainable future for the planet. However, Tesla's score was lowered by one of the three attributes that comprise Trustworthy Excitement, according to our cluster analysis of consumer survey data. The brand "makes life more enjoyable" and "makes me excited about my next experience with the brand," but, for many consumers, is not "a brand I trust." Trust is Tesla's Achilles heel, a challenge compounded recently by its and Uber's autonomous driving fatalities.

For brand marketers, Trustworthy Excitement is a delicate dance of apparent opposites. Consumers now associate product reliability with the excitement of new products, upgrades and events, and brand dependability and integrity with pleasure and thrills. As such, Trustworthy Excitement is an experience imperative uniquely attuned to our age of anticipation. Brands must work harder than ever to tie product and experience innovation, and design of the daily enjoyment of a brand's experiences and offerings, to trust-building measures such as transparency, fairness, empathy, authenticity, co-creation, a consistent history of positive interactions and shared values that inform every brand action.

Facebook can serve as a cautionary tale in this regard. While placing well below its rival tech titans Apple, Amazon, Google and Netflix in the Brand Belonging Index Top 25, Facebook has made life more enjoyable and exciting for its 2.2 billion monthly active users. But the social media leviathan has an opportunity and responsibility to improve its trustworthiness.

To be fair, most brands swim in the murky waters of consumer data monetization, powering their personalized offers and recommendations through data for greater profit. It's time to double down on consumer data transparency and other trust-building measures or risk consumers being far less interested in any brand's version of what's next.

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IBM iX is a next-generation experience design and digital consultancy. We bring together a unique combination of strategy, consulting, creative and design, analytics and systems integration capabilities to create and deliver personalized experiences at every touch point to drive growth and transform the way individuals engage with brands. We use disruptive thinking, visioning workshops, and cross-industry expertise to help our clients to imagine the realm of the possible and redefine their company's role in the world. We design the businesses that will shape the world for years to come, and then we help our clients make them real.
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