Brands and trust: why should I believe you?

by Gab Peters

Why brands need take risks to show they’re committed to causes.

Imagine for a moment that COVID is over, events are back on, and you receive an invitation to The Wedding Of The Year in the mail. You immediately see that the sender has put a big effort into making it special. We’re talking calligraphed address, sealed with wax, leave-it-on-the-fridge-for-the-next-year level special.

Now imagine that instead, you got that wedding invite via email, and they spelt your name wrong. How would that make you feel?

In his latest book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland describes the concept of signalling as:

“the need to send reliable indications of commitment and intent in order to inspire trust and confidence in others”.

More to the point, he talks about costly signalling – the idea that we attach meaning and significance to a communication proportional to the cost of creating or sending it. So in our scenario above, the fancy invitation is going to hold more significance than the email with a miss-spelt name: the former has clearly cost a lot to make, so the event must indeed be exclusive, while the expense spared on the later will most likely be reflected in the quality of the event.

This got me thinking about costly signalling for established brands trying to communicate brand purpose or sustainability credentials.

In the marketplace, kudos is no longer given for minimising or just not doing harm. Especially for established brands, there is a tricky barrier for consumer trust when it comes to ‘doing good’. Essentially, it’s all the time they spent not doing good. Consumers are still living with the impact of the ‘profit at any cost’ culture of the past decades – a culture that ransacked the environment for resources, polluted freely for the sake of building wealth, and turned a blind eye to institutionalised bigotry. When these brands commit to sustainability and social causes, consumers are slow to trust again.

So, how do established brands communicate sustainability credentials and support causes in a way that is credible, authentic and rebuilds that trust? 

This is where costly signalling comes in.

When taking a stand in cause marketing and sustainability, brands need to show sacrifice and costliness in order to build trust. That cost can be literal monetary expense, but it can also be through creative costliness such as design, craftsmanship or through the message of humour or bravery. When Nike took a stand and chose Colin Kaepernick as their spokesman, they showed courage and sacrificed the custom of those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. This conveyed commitment and authentic morality through that sacrifice. As we know, it was wildly successful and Nike’s stocks hit an all-time high.

 Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket campaign was another example of costly signalling through sacrificing (or appearing to sacrifice) sales in order to raise awareness about the impact of consumerism. Or when their first ever TV ad wasn’t about the products at all, but about conservation, forgoing pushing customers to buy products and instead standing for an issue. 

IKEA has shown their commitment to sustainability through several campaigns, the simplest of which is charging for bags and then donating to charity – risking annoying customers through lessening their convenience to tackle plastic waste.

Of course, every brand needs to practice what they preach. I’m not saying you can just throw money at big gestures and expect consumers to believe and love you, but once you have the credentials – you can make them a competitive advantage through signalling authenticity.  

If you’re planning a cause marketing campaign, think bigger than brand and bigger than business – how can you make a difference outside improving the impact of your own business model, or ‘supporting’ a cause through lip-service? Costly signalling can be inexpensive and hugely rewarding if done creatively. It just needs a great idea and someone willing to take the risk.

So, anyone up for some grand gestures? 

Gab Peters, Strategist | Republic of Everyone

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