« May 2009 | Main | August 2009 »

2 posts from July 2009

July 26, 2009

This Year It's All About Trust

Trust composite

Trust Image

The monthly flyer from my neighborhood hardware store arrived in my mailbox. The headline: "This year, it's all about trust."  Trust is a word that seems to be turning up more and more, in often unexpected places - like this flyer.  But the discussion of trust is permeating the big issues. Trust in politics.  Trust in business.  Trust in product or medical information.  Trust in the "experts" and talking heads on the evening news. Trust in everything you read online.  Trust in the folks populating various social networks ... And sometimes, more appropriately, the lack of trust and that sinking feeling of things you just can't quite prove are wrong.

The need for trust is universal and arises from our human interdependence. We often rely on others (individuals, groups, brands or institutions) to help us obtain, or at least not to frustrate, the outcomes we value (and they depend back on us as well). Trust allows actions to occur that otherwise would not have been possible because of currently incomplete information or an unwillingness to give resources now for an unguaranteed result in the future.

There are a lot of angles I’d like to explore when it comes to trust, but the area of greatest interest to me currently has to do with Trust and Media, how trust is obtained, and the possibility for the migration of online trust and talent to other media platforms.

In this post, I’d like to explore these questions:

  1. Trust and Influence: How important is trust when it comes to being able to influence behavior and decisions?
  2. Earning and Maintaining Trust: How do brands (companies/collections) or people (individuals) become trusted? What do they do to maintain that trust, and once obtained is it theirs to loose?
  3. Trust in the Digital vs. Real World: Is building trust in digital media space different than building it in the real or broadcast worlds?
  4. Exporting Trust Across Media and Communities: Can a "trust metric" developed in one digital space be "exported" into other media areas, like TV? (or visa versa)  - thus making one a potential talent development source for the other.

(Before jumping into these questions, it’s good to have a baseline understanding of what is meant by “Trust” covered in the next section. However, if you want to jump head first into the meat of the discussion, you can skip that and go right to the section header “Trust and Influence.”)

What Is Trust? – The Etymological Foundations

It’s interesting that the etymological origins of the word “trust” share many commonalities with the word “truth” (“faithful, accuracy, correctness”), and go back, in part, to the 13 century Old Norse word “traust” meaning “help, confidence.” That makes sense given an understanding of trust as a measure of belief in the honesty, benevolence and competence of another party; and a predictor of the reliability of future action, based only on what one party currently knows about the other. Trust is a statement of faith about what is otherwise unknown because it is currently unverifiable or the results exist in the future. Because of that, it is a powerful attribute for an individual or a brand, and a prerequisite for real “credibility” and “the ability to influence.”

(1) Trust and Influence

Conventional wisdom would say that trust and influence are inextricably linked, but let’s look at some numbers so it’s not just my opinion.  From PR firm Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2009 Study the data affirm that trust affects/influences consumer actions/spending and overall reputation.

People act based on trust.

  • 91% of 25-to-64-year-olds around the world indicated they bought a product or service from a company they trusted
  • 77% refused to buy a product or service from a distrusted company

People listen to and believe those who have earned their trust over time.

  • 59% of 35-to- 64-year-olds saying an academic or expert on a company’s industry or issues would be extremely or very credible
  • 17% of 35-to-64-year-olds indicated they would trust information from a high profile CEO (a six-year low)

People need time and continuous conversation to build trust, not one-time edicts or proclamations.

  • 60% of 35-to- 64-year-olds say they need to hear information about a company three to five times before they believe it

(2) Earning and Maintaining Trust

How do brands (companies/collections) or people (individuals) become trusted? What do they do to maintain that trust, and once obtained is it theirs to loose?

Frameworks from the Studies
Where does trust come from? Some would frame trust as a hard wired brain chemistry calculation.

 “The moral is that trust is ultimately about the expectation of rewards. Trust may be an admirable social trait, but it's ultimately rooted in a greedy calculation, emanating from our primal dopamine reward circuitry…”
-  Jonah Lehrer in “Trust: The Frontal Cortex”  July 7 2009

This definition of trust as “biology plus calculus” is part of the answer; but the “heart” of the definition can be found in the literature of conflict resolution theory where “real world” trust in another is grounded in the evaluation of their ability and integrity (early in the relationship) and benevolence (over the longer term).

  • Ability: Defined by knowledge and competency. The more one has of these, the more likely a trust level is to grow.
  • Integrity: Defined by adherence to principles that are essential to the “trustor.” This is demonstrated by consistency over a period of time accompanied by the alignment of word and deed.
  • Benevolence: Defined by observation of the others concern of our welfare (or at least that they won’t work against it). Open communications and shared control are the key indicating behaviors.

Additionally, trust is not a final destination.  Trust is a continuum of stages and levels, and over time, behaviors and levels of resiliency change.

Early “congnitively” (ability + integrity) driven stages of trust are framed by a need for predictability and reliability.  Trust is built at this stage by demonstrating:

  • Competent performance
  • Predictable and consistent behavior
  • Accurate and open communication
  • Shared and delegated control
  • Mutual concern

At later stages along the trust continuum, when mutual identification has occurred, and benevolence is forming via the parties “internalizing” each other’s desires and intentions, trust is further solidified through:

  • Common identity (we vs. me)
  • Co-location (sharing the same space)
  • Joint goals and product creation (make and contribute to things that define commonality)
  • Shared values and emotions (recognizing contributions and demonstrating confidence)

Trust in the World of Media
Given these models of trust-building, how do we see trust built in the media world - for individuals as well as business entities?  Some thoughts and examples follow.


Walter Cronkite: During the heyday of CBS News in the 1970s and 1980s he was often cited in opinion polls as "the most trusted man in America.” But he did not come on the scene as “trusted.”  He had to earn it, obviously in a less fragmented media world than today.  Nonetheless, he built trust over decades of work beginning with reporting from WW II, constantly displaying ability and integrity (early stage trust builders).  One might say with the Kennedy assassination announcement and later with the moon landing, that he entered the more advanced stage of trust (benevolence) fueled by the common identity with the American people he displayed on camera and the clear sharing of values, emotions and experiences. Given the lack of media competition that existed during the prime of his career, and the longevity of his career, it is doubtful that this trust level could be duplicated again.

Oprah Winfrey:  Oprah Winfrey is often cited as one of the most trusted Lighthouse Brands that is also a Market Leader in Media.  Like Cronkite, she has built her trust quotient over time (The Oprah Winfrey Show has more than a 20 year history) by demonstrating ability and integrity (early phase trust), and also reaching the more advanced solidified trust levels (benevolence) with her audience though a mutual identification against a variety of:

  “…monsters she sees threatening her chosen community …  notably domestic violence, child abuse, and weight loss and self-esteem issues among women. Oprah is not a Goliath, both because she is smaller and visibly vulnerable to these larger monsters in the eyes of her community, and also because she uses all her strength and size to fight them on her community’s behalf.  And her community eternally loves her for it. ”
- (Eating the Big Fish p. 301)

Separated by generations, Oprah and Cronkite are alike in the depth of their advanced trust level with their particular audiences, in large part because of their ability to express vulnerability (shared emotion) while at the same time exuding competence and connection. Cronkite tearing up over Kennedy and expressing amazement and wonder at the lunar landing; Oprah sharing personal struggles over her weight, causes, and friendships.

Jon Stewart: An August 2008 New York Times story asked: "Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man in America?” and a July 2009 Time Magazine Poll answered “Yes” with 44% choosing him as “America’s most trusted newscaster” in the post Cronkite era. His period of trust building is half that of Oprah’s (hosting The Daily Show on Comedy Central since 1999) and perhaps one quarter of Cronkite’s years (between the 1930s-1970s), but he has had the accelerant of the digital space.  And it’s tough to measure comparable size of  “trusted influence” for all three from various combos of TV  and Web audience numbers. It’s also interesting that in this particular time period, Stewart is the most trusted man who has built a persona of not trusting anyone. (And for that, we trust him even more.) Still, in his shows he consistently exhibits the trust building characteristics of ability, integrity and his own brand of benevolence (to his audience/community, not necessarily to his interviewees).

CNN: CNN has a slogan: “The Most Trusted Name in News."  They gave it to themselves; no one “conferred” it on them as in the case of Cronkite.   As an organization, I can’t say that they pass the trust sniff test.  There are a lot of things I personally like about CNN, but the sometimes constant droning repetition by some of their news personalities of their various catch phrases such as “the best political team on television” serves to dilute not only any truth metric earned by the enterprise, but that of deserving individual members.  You can’t claim trust, you have to earn it from others.

(3) Trust in Digital vs Real World

Is building trust in digital media space different than building it in the real or broadcast worlds?

Participation in digital world communities and platforms can accelerate the speed and reach of the trust metric, but the underlying human reasons for earning (and maintaining) trust are the same: ability, integrity and benevolence.  While the Web speeds breaking stories and content memes around the world, it can also provide equal acceleration to mistakes and humiliation. Self, as well as group, correction then have to follow with equal speed.

One of the mistakes that many make in terms of trust and digital space is that just because messages can be sent instantaneously, that trust can be developed and exploited just as fast.  Not true – this violates the human side of trust development and the nature of the trust continuum.  Just as in the physical world, in digital space, you need to create significant shared value before you ever ask for any of it back.

“Consider it (trust building) tending a farm of potential versus hunting for the short term ... in this wired world of digital communities and deep long-tailed niches, humanity over IP is the protocol…”
- Chris Brogan and Julien Smith in the eBook “Trust Economies.”

(4) Exporting Trust Across Media and Communities

Can a "trust metric" developed in one digital space be "exported" into other media areas, like TV? (or visa versa)  - thus making one a potential talent development source for the other.

I propose that trust is more defined by the relevant community/audience than the particular media platform.  If the community is engaged across multiple media platforms, trust and the person who has earned it has the potential to transfer across them (other economic and access barriers not withstanding).  There aren’t a lot of examples yet in terms of trust + personality transfer.  And it’s unclear to me yet if that’s a result of many online trust building tools and communities are still relatively “young” OR if the barriers of “old media” at this time neglect the trust quotient from other media, even if it would be to their own benefit.  More exploration on this later, but for now, two examples: Some examples of online to TV trust/personality migration: 

Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox): Started in the blogosphere at places such as Wonkette; became known for her interesting and personally very transparent fundraising activities while covering McCain in the 2008 election. Now Air America’s national correspondent and a frequent guest and fill-in host on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

Joan Walsh of Salon.com (@joanwalsh): Editor at Salon.com and now a frequent knowledgeable commentator on both Hardball and The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.  She cites as important in maintaining trust and credibility across: “A record of accuracy in what’s important, regardless of what you’re doing; correcting mistakes when you make them … and not speaking outside your area of expertise.”  Her view of online media: “It's built with attention to accuracy, with mechanisms for rapid self-correction as well as dialogue with audience.”  Seems to me that’s a pretty clear alignment with the ability, integrity  and benevolence (audience dialogue) measures of the trust equation.

Trust Lessons

Trust is not a luxury; nor is it something that can be immediately purchased.  Earned over time based on specific demonstrated behaviors that, at a basic level, are the same in the real world as in the digital world – ability, integrity and benevolence – it is the currency that enables influence and attention acquisition in a time starved world.   And that’s very valuable stuff in the world of media.  It will be interesting to see if the growing trust building and distribution platforms in digital space will find the cracks in the walls surrounding traditional media to enable more breakthroughs of talent and opinion.  Seems like fertile ground to me. Media companies and trust agents, what do you think?  Egv_tiny_blogicon

July 07, 2009

Brand Identity Is More Than Image - The Case for Product Informed by Brand Truth


Click for larger image.

Brand Identity and Product Model for a Media Company


Identity is not just image.  Not even in the world of media companies.

Brand Identity goes far beyond a company’s logo and tagline. It is the unique expression of a deep belief system that must live at the heart of everything that emanates from and around a brand entity, manifesting itself not just in what are considered creative marketing communications conventions, but just as (if not more) importantly, in the essence of the product experience the brand delivers. Product naturally and deeply infused with brand identity innately conveys differences that are immediately experienced and observable (no product data sheet required). They are noticed even when you’re not looking for them. What I’m talking about is NOT a logo branded on an object, but the user’s (direct) product experience itself.

Everything in the brand ecosystem – from what it says to what it does - should be thought of as a potential medium upon which brand identity is insistently and consistently embedded. It’s core to the DNA. Identity remains constant, while a particular medium and its implications may change with time and place.

When brand identity and product truth are in alignment, there is an opportunity to create not just product satisfaction, but enthusiasm - to outperform the competition, over deliver on expectations, and even dare to surprise (in a good way) and delight the user community.

What is Product for Media Companies?

We often think of product in very simple terms (a car, a shampoo, a camera, a vacation destination) and models (only what the company creates that is obvious to the consumer) that miss much of the essence of 21st century product experience. For purposes of this post, product most broadly defined for a digital media company (or traditional media company with significant digital presence) includes its media content (text, video, photos), technology platforms, unique experience applications and capabilities, and its “user” community. These represented by 3 of the 6 areas in the outer ring of the model.

The Model

This model of brand identity is an extension of one first introduced in an April 3 post in this blog. This is a framework in which brand identity is at the heart, informing the surrounding ecosystems of communications audiences (ring 2) and vehicles (ring 3), as well as all the implicit and explicit ways that identity should manifest in the tactical aspects of the business (outer ring) – from product to content to monetization and partnership strategies to personality. This post focuses on the newly added outer ring.  The details of the rest of the model are at the original post, but briefly here:

Center: Brand identity defines what you stand for, as well as what you stand against.  More than a tagline; it should inform, and be in the DNA, of everything in the rest of the model.

Second Ring:  The “audience” ecosystem is comprised of the various groups with which the brand communicates and which will inevitably communicate back.  (The medium is about conversation, not just broadcast.)  For each of these, brand identity manifests in a unique positioning statement and communications architecture.

Third Ring: This is the portfolio of communications vehicles (both digital and real world) that will be relevant for different members of the “audience” ecosystem at different points in time. Brand identity drives their strategic plan and creative execution.

Fourth Ring: For Challenger Brands in particular, brand identity must manifest in all areas of the business, beyond the traditional creative venue of marketing communications (ring 3). These include product experience (product, content and community), business relationships (revenue generation and audience building), and the nature of the brand’s personality and greater connection to the world at large.  These are represented as discreet elements in the model for purposes of discussion, but obviously influence each other greatly in the real world (e.g. Content: accessibility impacts Audience: engagement.)  All of these elements also have unique relationships with the various members of the “audience/user”’ ecosystem.

Brand Identity and the Arena of Product

Products have just as much opportunity to touch people emotionally as does a marketing campaign. Product is often thought of as pragmatic and not creative, yet it can be (and should be) just as creative and "emotional" an expression of the brand identity as any marketing communications campaign.

For media companies, content is what has traditionally been first thought of as the core of the “product” offering. For today's robust media company, it is but one third of the product trifecta, with product platform and community providing the "context for the content", rounding out a media company's product offering. So how might we think of the relationship between brand identity and these three components of product?

(1) Content:
How does brand identity inform decisions about the design and production, timeliness, location and sharing nature of the content?

Design/production values and accessibility: Does the brand identity demand a polished Hollywood look , or something more of the order of garage or homemade?  Is production solely from professional sources, consumer generated or a curated mix of the two?

Timeliness vs Quality Tradeoff: Where along the continuum of "content that reflects the most current moment" to "in-depth thoughtful production" does the brand identity determine for the media mix? In the online world, where immediacy is possible, the decision has to be made about what expectation to set.  And the closer to the immediacy end of the spectrum, traditional quality measures may decline.  However, "immediacy" in and of itself may be a new measure of online content quality.

Distribution/Location: Different distribution locations provide different opportunities for discovery and also context for content, and context of media is often as critical as the nature of the content itself. Does the brand identity reflect a philosophy of a controlled walled garden, a free range system where search and discovery are critical, or somewhere in between?

Sharability: Does the brand reflect an attitude of open sharing or one of "close to the vest?" And is sharing defined as inside the brand community or into any possible group.  Again, in the online world, the power of the passed link (to content) is undeniable in building a brand's power.

(2) Product Platform: How does brand identity inform the product platform specification, execution and evolution?

Convenience/Ease of Use/Speed: What guidance does the brand identity provide in relationship to setting priorities and making tough development calls in relationship to the ease of user access (convenience of search and discovery), to ease of use (once product/content is accessed), to speed of use (how product/content performs/responds in reaction to user's actions)?

Performance: Thinking about product performance now needs to go beyond the functionality and industry benchmark metrics touted in the worlds of industrial design and high tech. Both the left (logical/analytical) and right (creative/emotional) sides of the user's brain must be seen as equally important.  What does the brand identity say about how the user should feel when engaging with, using or watching/reading the "product?"

Engagement Experience: Is all engagement "deliberately planned" or is there room for "spontaneous engagement" through discovery, recommendation or other means? Does the product treat users as audience, participants or co-creators?  What other objects or experiences need to surround the core product?

Scalability: Does brand identity indicate a boutique audience or one of potential global dimensions? How does that impact plans for scalability of platform, content, audience and interaction?

(3) Community and Participation: How does brand identity inform the nature of the desired relationship with the "user" communities to the product platform and its content?

Types and Varieties of Engagement Opportunities: Communities contribute to, but rarely take over (hijack), the manifestation of brand identity. They congregate around brand identity.  The levels of content engagement that are provided and enabled by a brand will define, in large part, the extent to which the users/audience will co-create and co-define the product.

Levels of Interaction: Brand identity reflects an understanding of "audience or user" and their predisposition to engage in certain online media behaviors.  The group's technographic profile should guide the level of complexity and intent of online experiences  - understanding when, where and for whom enabling creating, curating, commenting, or sharing of content is important.

Ability to Personalize: Personalization of product may be one of the deepest forms of engagement one can have with brand identity. Providing a platform or experience upon which one can put their own unique stamp is powerful; and pride in that personalization promotes sharing. Enough said.

Lessons Learned

Brand identity needs to be as much a part of the core DNA of product as it is for marketing communications. Both are  physical manifestations of how the media brand wants to attract and interact with its users/audience.

Brand identity and product truth are inextricable interlinked. They must be if a media brand is to be successful.  And in a Web 2.0 world, product truth becomes concrete in a product experience that is shared equally by the content, product platform (technology and experiences) and the communities that surround them.

For a media company, the question will then be to make wise choices as how to best prioritize resources against that which comprises product: content, platform and surrounding community - deciding in which cases brand identity suggests performance "at industry levels" and where it demands exceptional commitment to excellence and user/audience delight. Egv_tiny_blogicon


Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.