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The science of igniting brand trust

Institutions that once stood for something are losing face in the wake of new-world phenomena like privacy infringements (e.g. the government’s collection of personal data from some top brands that we’ve trusted with it), as well as major media shifts that have exposed huge cracks in our institutions while simultaneously creating new ones. It’s citizen journalism, for example, that’s been responsible for holding brands accountable for major violations and public slip-ups. But this democratization of information has a dark side—most commonly manifest in the formation of online “echo chambers” and the dissemination of “fake news.”

One of the best times to invest is after a crash. While the erosion of trust carries inevitably negative market consequences, it also represents a rare opportunity for public leaders and brands alike, who understand its mechanics, to invest in new ways of building trust, and with it a sustainable competitive advantage. But how do you forge trust in this epoch of doubt? If we look to science for some answers, we find it all comes back to social connection—the means of which has evolved. These insights will help us understand how trust is cultivated and converted to influence at scale.

The trust-trigger in our brains

Many have studied the strategic advantages of engineering relationships between people and entities, particularly in the digital age. Professor Paul J. Zak, who popularized the field of “neuroeconomics,” has studied the effects of a trigger hormone called oxytocin on human behavior and physiology[1]. Zak and his colleagues have been on the hunt to uncover precisely how oxytocin may be influencing our everyday decisions and actions. According to their findings, oxytocin is part of an adaptive system that allows us to coordinate our behavior in social situations, and is central to the understanding of social relationships[2]. It is also the “social glue” that adheres people and communities, and, as such, the “economic lubricant” that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions.[3]

In the context of branding and marketing, that last point can explain consumers’ willingness to invest in a brand, an idea, or a product/service. In a series of experiments with Fast Company writer Adam Penenberg,  Zak was able to show that stimulating oxytocin levels in subjects actually increases individuals’ generosity towards others, as well as their charity towards organizations (by up to 48 percent, in one experiment)—proving that we’re more willing to actually transact when we’re experiencing a sense of connection. “If we can be induced to give more to a charity, well, it’s not that big a step to being induced to give more to a corporation, or a political party, or even a country,” wrote Penenberg. The implications, he concluded, “are both thrilling and frightening.”

Transmission via social platforms

While oxytocin plays a key role in common experiences of real-world connection—from parent-baby bonding to a casual hug—Zak has shown that social media interactions can also trigger the release of this trust chemical in our brains. In another experiment, 10 minutes of Twitter conversations with both strangers and his students raised Penenberg’s oxytocin levels 13.2 percent (equivalent to those experienced by a groom at a wedding), while lowering the stress hormones cortisol and ACTH by 10.8 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively. Zak explains that the brain can interpret tweeting as if someone is directly interacting with someone else that he or she cares about or has empathy for. E-connection, he asserts, “is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.”[5]. This means big things for brands, for whom social platforms represent a wide-reaching and intimate mechanism for forging and facilitating connections with customers.

However, the power of social stimulae should not be taken for granted: trust doesn’t manifest from a faceless tweet, it must be earned. The oxytocin-responses that Zak studied result from an actual social interaction—whether digital or analog. As Dave Hawley, Vice President of Marketing and Sales Development at SocialChorus, wrote in an interview with the American Marketing Association:

“The challenging part for marketers is to make that social media connection into a human connection, and not an automated or derisive connection,”

He writes about the related reward response—dopamine spikes— that we experience when sharing content, in expectation of a like, share, or repost. “The connection doesn’t happen because the brand wants you to say something nice about them or validate their point of view,” he explained. “It’s actually about validating the audience’s point of view. The goal should be for a brand to validate a person’s point of view about the brand or something related to the brand.”

Converting trust to influence, at scale

Just as social platforms enhance a brand’s ability to connect to people, they amplify people’s ability to influence one another. As such platforms grow, in both scope and purpose, so too has the practice of “influence” marketing. Penenberg’s early predictions support this trend:

“The speed with which social media can affect a company’s ‘trust factor’ may lead to a new focus on what Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations in New York and author of several books on viral marketing, calls ‘horizontal growth’.”

The guiding principle behind horizontal growth is that happy customers can sell your brand to others better than you ever could. Rather than using social media as a forum for self-promotion, brands that hand the stage over to their customers and facilitate connections between people will win out, as those individuals advocate across their networks on their behalf. Building those connections relies on equipping people with powerful forms of storytelling, open forums, and real-time engagement. This is where key concepts like transparency and a brand’s “purpose” come in: your purpose can be something that people rally around to start or expand a social dialogue. The more that transparency and purpose guide your conversations and actions, the deeper the connection with people who share similar values, thus building trust, and generating horizontal growth through a network of trustworthy advocates. This new balance of power can be very positive and powerful for those who embrace customers as a key component of their marketing mix—and potentially destructive and embarrassing for those who don’t.

Why now

In today’s climate of reigning cynicism toward public leaders and institutions, brand trust plays a critical role in the procurement of new customers and the conversion of existing ones into believers, loyalists, and evangelists. “There will be a time when marketers need to understand the basic concepts of neuroscience,” Hawley predicted.

“They need to understand a little bit more about how the emotions of the human mind work, and how they can align their messages around it.”

Hawley speaks of a future that’s already here—but it’s about more than messaging, it’s about behavior. That means putting your customers at the heart of your marketing plan, and doing your due diligence to understand and keep pace with how they think. These brands will earn trust, win hearts and minds, increase share of wallet, and mobilize a crowd-in-waiting of like-minded individuals who will defend and promote the brand’s interests across their own interpersonal circles of social influence.




2. Jonas: Mosby’s Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (c) 2005, Elsevier.



5. Zak, Paul J. The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. New York: Dutton, 2012.

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