We’ve been looking at consumer-brand relationships all wrong. We see brands as these big, faceless entities trying to attract and nurture fleeting relationships with thousands, or even millions of consumers, much in the way that a film or TV show is intended to attract millions of eyes with a single image. This is flawed, for a number of reasons (which I’ll be exploring shortly). Instead, if brands want to build trust — the foundation for any relationship — brands need to individualize efforts, forming more personal relationships with individual consumers.
Despite remaining significant to company performance, brand trust has suffered in the past several years, maybe even decades. Without that trust, consumers are less likely to purchase — and the ones who purchase are less likely to remain loyal and come back for more. When you take a look at the motivations for this drop in trust, it becomes clear why more personal relationships are the solution.
The Devaluation of Corporations
According to a Harris poll a few years back, trust of corporations has fallen significantly, with less than 20 percent of people trusting corporations in the banking, health insurance, or pharmaceutical industries. Why is this? You could argue a number of different factors, but one of the most important is the roles corporations have had in major events of the past few decades, as well as their portrayal in the news and pop culture. Corporations are seen as greedy, power-hungry, and uncaring of personal needs, and they’re blamed for both political manipulation and the economic downturn of 2008. Millennials, especially, have developed a distaste for corporate empires, instead favoring businesses with a more down-to-earth, transparent model.
The Ubiquity of Advertising
It also doesn’t help that we’ve all been bombarded with advertising, 24–7, for most of our lives. A recent study by the McCarthy Group suggests that 84 percent of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising — outright. Why? Because advertising is seen as deliberately manipulative; its definitive goal is to increase sales, which means separating people from their money. Under this view, advertising is deceitful, impersonal, and it has no value. This is why humanizing strategies like content marketing and social media marketing have arisen — they’re indirect ways to bolster a brand’s reputation without directly trying to advertise a product or service.
Here, you have two factors influencing consumer distrust — the facelessness and stigma of the “corporation,” and the virtual ineffectiveness of traditional advertising. Corporations must continue to exist (so dissolving them isn’t a possibility), and if they want to remain profitable, they need some avenue to build visibility and trust without looking like they’re trying to build visibility and trust. This is where the level of personal interaction and relationship building manifests itself; with a personal face to your exchanges, the “corporation” problem fades away. People will associate your company with a human being, or at least a human experience, instead. The advertising problem also disappears — unless you’re making a direct sales pitch, your personal relationship won’t be seen as manipulative or shady.
Putting a Personal Relationship Strategy Into Practice
Now for the hard part. You clearly can’t be best friends with everyone in your target market, or you’d exhaust your resources (and probably your patience too). Instead, you need to find indirect and efficient ways to build more personal relationships with your consumers; you need to humanize your brand.
· Personal Branding. Your first outlet is personal branding. Similar to corporate branding, personal branding involves creating an identity for an individual (such as your company president, or your account reps), then using that individual as a mouthpiece for your organization. Don’t get wrapped up in trying to “create” a personality for your representatives, however — let them be themselves. With a human face and a more casual, approachable personality, your personal brands will be able to convey the same types of messages in a more trustworthy form.
· Individualized Customer Service. It’s also a good idea to keep your customer service as individual as possible. The FAQ pages and standard messages might help you filter out the majority of inbound requests, but if you really want to make an impression, you need to offer a standout experience. Go above and beyond to show your customers that you care about them; have a real conversation on the phone, follow up with them personally, or send them a gift that makes them think more highly of you.
· Social Media and Community Management. Finally, get involved on a social and community level. Post actively as a brand on social media, in a personal and approachable voice, and respond to commenters on your blogs and forums. Respond to them sincerely, ask them questions, and show that you care about them — the same way you would a friend or family member. It makes a memorable impression.
There are many factors that influence trust that I haven’t mentioned above, including your history as an organization, your corporate social responsibility, and your industry affiliations. Personal relationships are just one conduit in a complicated system that can allow you to build more trust. It’s also important to remember the importance of consistency — it’s not enough to have one personal exchange with a customer, or to apply these strategies part of the time. It’s an all-or-nothing approach. Once you commit to making your brand more personal, you’ll start to see results almost immediately — at least on an individual level — so don’t procrastinate any longer.