Trust is a topic that continues to trend – and in times of Royal Commissions and business failures – it’s a topic more important than ever.

This is a topic I think about a lot. Building trust online is hard – and building long term, sustainable customer (and empoyee) trust has never been more difficult. Loyalty almost seems like a word from the past… yet more than ever it’s what we need to engender for our brands – with every stakeholder, including the wider community.

When it comes to businesses being transparent with customers and delivering on a promise, creating trust, building trust and keeping trust is paramount. Customers are more informed than they have ever been – and businesses can quickly be judged through a social media comment or post.

Trust is king in every business relationship – without trust, it is really difficult to achieve great things.

The Big Red Group team recently had a lunch and learn to hear from an expert on this very topic, Ian Elliot. Ian has more 30 years experience in the highly competitive and cutthroat advertising industry. His story is that of a Hollywood plot; having risen from mail boy to CEO and Chairman of Australia’s biggest advertising agency, George Patterson. He’s a master strategist when it comes to building brands and discovering that secret ingredient that makes a specific brand special and a standout from the rest. And he’s never lost a pitch!

We sat down with Ian to talk about this topic of brand trust, and below I have compiled some of his best insights and anecdotes for you.

What does ‘trust’ mean to you? Trust is built when our confidence in someone or something is constantly realised. There is no stronger human emotion than that of a trust betrayed – and if anyone has ever been betrayed that will resonate with how you felt at the time. The best brands are brands that make people feel good about who they are. It’s not, “Let me tell you what’s wrong with you and if you buy this product over here you’ll be better”, it’s, “I’m a brand that understands you and I respect you and when you interact with my brand you will feel better about who you already are”. There’s a big difference, and the difference builds trust.

Why is building brand trust an important commercial objective? If you build trust then you will build positive word of mouth, and then get repeat purchase. With repeat purchase comes profitability. It’s pretty simple. You see, I’m not so interested in sales where you work hard to get each individual conversion and you put that one in the bank and then find another customer. I’m less interested in transactions than I am in traction. Traction is about repeat purchase – how many times the customer will come back to you. And trust is what is required in order to build traction for a purchase.

Give us some examples of brands that have broken our trust as consumers… 

Ian talked extensively about corporate responsibility and that trust has been broken on so many fronts. Even some of our sporting heroes have made us question what is ‘sportsmanship?’  – that belief and trust we have that our sporting ‘idols’ play by the rules. He spoke firstly about Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong was an outstanding, all-time great hero – and he was accused of being a drug cheat. Those of us who were his fans failed to believe he was a drug cheat because our need for a hero was bigger than our need for the truth. So we kept on backing Lance Armstrong and he kept on being adamant that he wasn’t a drug cheat. And in the end it maybe wasn’t so bad that he was taking all those drugs for all those years, but more that he told so many lies to his fiercely loyal – and trusting – fans.

Where else have we had our moral compass slightly moved from true north? Let’s look at corporate deceit. In 2015 Volkswagen was pinned by the Environmental Protection Agency because their turbo and diesel cars under testing conditions in a laboratory were emitting a correct amount of emissions, but when unplugged from the testing equipment and put on the road, they were 40 times the allowable levels. Volkswagen actively conspired to deceive us.

And what about the banks? So topical this week, with both criminal and civil charges being recommended. With #FeeforNoService trending, the question remains for us as consumers, “Is it a crowd thing, or a few bad apples spoiling the bunch?” As Ian said, we used to believe things were as “safe as a bank”, or that we could “take it all the way to the bank”. We really trusted our banks. There were no institutions more solid or more trusted than these giant marble buildings synonymous with strength, certainty and consistency.

They were here for 100 years and they will be here for another 1000 years, and there is no way that my bank will ever tell me a lie. If you go back 10 years, before the GFC, I had complete trust in my bank. I’d ring them up on the telephone and get them to transfer some money – I didn’t bother to check what they had done, I just knew it would have been done and it would have been done ethically. After the GFC a whole range of behaviours and poor values were exposed within these institutions, leading to a series of commissions and investigations. These institutions have been exposed as lying and cheating and stealing and charging for products they never delivered. Selling life insurance policies to dead people –  I don’t know how worse you can get.

Trust is such an arbitrary measure, so how do you get a handle on if something or someone is trustworthy? Many people would say ‘trust your gut’, but actually one of the things I did was write myself a mathematical equation to measure trust:

Trust = (Authenticity + Ability + Actions) x Alignment 

What I say is that trust is equal to authenticity, plus ability, plus your actions. I give each a score out of 10, group them together and then multiply by alignment. The highest possible score is 300.

  • Authenticity – are you real, are you truthful, do you do what you say you’re going to, are you genuine?
  • Ability – do you have the skills, knowledge and experience to be able to perform the task that I am hoping you are able to do, have you got the right tools?
  • Action – are your actions reflective of your ability and the skills you claim to have?
  • Alignment – do we have common purpose and is thee equality in the relationship? This is the multiplier because it is by far the most dominant factor in this whole equation.

What happens if we don’t have trust? If we don’t have trust, then commerce collapses.

Take for example the concept of money. Money is only worth something provided we all believe it’s worth something. If somebody came along and said, “I’d really like to buy your house and I’m going to give you 20% more than it’s currently valued”, and you say, “OK, I’ll sell it”. Then they say, “Great, but there’s one small thing I forgot to mention to you… I’m paying for it in Bitcoin”. You no longer want to sell the house. Why? Because we don’t trust Bitcoin – we don’t all believe the hype that it’s going to be worth something. This is the power of trust.

If our trust in society and commerce falls to a level where we no longer trust money, then we are all in trouble. Because I have to believe that if I give you $50 worth of services and you give me a $50 note, I can take it to the shop and get $50 worth of food for it, that person can take it to another shop and get $50 worth of clothing for it, and so on. But if that concept breaks, we are all back in the stone age. That is why trust is so important – because commerce collapses without it.

So how do we correct this erosion of trust? As a society we need to go back to the basics and get the groundwork right, because that old expression that money is the root of all evil is true – never a truer phrase was spoken. If you’re looking for why there’s bad practice somewhere follow the money trail, it’s always the answer. So what can we do? Here are four really obvious, basic, homespun examples of what we can do.

  1. Teach values. A lot of people debate whether or not ethics should be taught in schools, and for me it’s a no brainer. Ethics can be taught.
  2. Respect. One of the most respected occupations in Australia is that of an ambulance paramedic. Yet how many times do we see a story where some poor ambo is out there saving somebody’s life while somebody else is stealing his kit out of the back of the ambulance? Or go to St Vincents on a Friday or Saturday night and there are security guards everywhere, because there are people bashing up the doctors and nurses. We need to get a bit more respect back into society before we can even look at building trust.
  3. Reduce temptations. I firmly believe if somebody is stealing money from my business because my financial systems and reporting structures are poor then it is as much my fault as it is theirs. I should have never put that temptation in their way. If you can reduce any temptation for people to act with bad values, that’s a big step.
  4. Admit your failures. If you make a mistake, fess up. Say to your client or customer, “I made a mistake, I’m sorry, here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, how it happened, this is the impact, this is how we are going to make good, I’m really, really sorry about that and it won’t happen again”. Nine times out of ten they will put their arm around you and say, “How can we help?”. The minute you try and cover it up, they will never ever trust you again.

Do you have any examples of brands who have done it right? I’ll give you a perfect example. At George Patterson we held the Arnott’s Biscuits account for over 50 years. In 1997 there was a biscuit poisoning scare. Arnott’s were advised by somebody via an anonymous letter that some biscuits had been laced with arsenic and put back on the shelf. Their management at the time called the police and then alerted us – we had to get a crisis communications strategy in place and manage the situation. We told Arnott’s they had to stand up publicly and tell everybody what had happened – to go on television and tell everybody about the threat and taking all the biscuits off the shelves at every retail store in Australia, and dumping them.

So we made a television commercial showing the public pictures of all the biscuits being swept off the shelves into buckets and being taken to the tip and dumped in a big hole and covered up. The public could then believe there were no poisoned biscuits because the brand was upfront and truthful at the very beginning, rather than faking their way around it. We took that strategy, then the police solved the puzzle, and then all the biscuits went back on the shelves. Arnott’s had about a 51 percent market share at that time, which is an enormous market share for any grocery product. Their brand motto that they stand by is to this day is “there is no substitute for quality” – this action was consistent with that message.  Over the years they had built a trusting relationship with their customers as an Australian institution and an iconic brand. And when the biscuits went back on shelves, Arnott’s market share actually went up even further to 53 percent. But think for a moment that for six weeks the biscuits were off the shelves, and in that time every competitor stocked those shelves with their own biscuits. And customers didn’t walk in and say, “Well I’m not going to buy any of those biscuits because that’s Arnott’s space” – they just brought those biscuits and tried them, and they tasted pretty good. And yet, when Arnott’s came back on the shelves, people bought them again and in great numbers. Because we trust Arnott’s, because they did the right thing by us.

Thanks for sharing your insights Ian.


Business is difficult, and the hardest thing is balancing the differing priorities of all stakeholders. But short term profits at the cost of trust and brand reputation is just that… short sighted. To build trust is the long game – each action, conversation, email and message must be consistent with your beliefs and what you stand for as an organisation. And while the customer may not always be ‘right’, the customer has the power to vote with their feet, and as such must be honored and respected.

Trust is created from respect.

Grow & Scale Your Business by Naomi Simson

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