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Head to Head: Is trust more important than relevance?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Nicole Reaney, director at Inside Out PR goes head to head with Sefiani director Nick Owens on whether trust is more important than relevance.

What’s more important: trust or relevance? Nicole Reaney, director at Inside Out PR, believes that if a brand can stay relevant, it can weather any trust issues. Nick Owens, director at Sefiani Communications Group, argues that trust must be valued above all else.

Yes, argues Nick Owens, director at Sefiani Communications Group:

Is trust more important than relevance? It’s a bit like the chicken and egg – which comes first? It’s also probably a false dichotomy, because brands need both to succeed. A brand has to be relevant enough that customers want or need to engage with it and then learn to trust it, but without a critical mass of trusting customers, it won’t become relevant.

Put another way, can you imagine a product or service succeeding if it is trustworthy but irrelevant, or relevant but untrustworthy?

For the sake of argument, let’s say it has to be one or the other. In that case, I‘ll plump for trust as being the more critical to sustainable brand success.

Trust is the starting point for building lasting relevance over time. Relevance on the other hand is not necessarily a good thing – indeed, it’s almost meaningless – unless it comes with trust.

Think about our banks: they’re relevant because everyone needs one, but not many will argue they are well trusted. For the banks, that’s probably ok for now because there aren’t many other options for borrowing or parking your money. But it does leave them acutely vulnerable to disruption from fintechs and regulatory changes encouraging new competitors. The virtual (neo) banks are coming and worryingly for the traditional banks, there are way too many people itching to make the jump.

Relevance may determine whether a client or customer considers engaging with a brand, but trust determines whether they’ll actually take the plunge and buy into it.

This matters, because people are becoming more cynical about brands. Ipsos recently showed that 37% of consumers trust brands less than they used to, compared to 7% who trust them more. Brand trust is a shrinking commodity and while social media has opened up new ways for brands to be relevant, the glossy worlds of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn do not necessarily build trust.

When not only the use of paid brand influencers is growing but also scepticism about the authenticity of relationships between brands and influencers, trust has never been more important. The best brands succeed in getting everyday people to become their ambassadors, recommending it to friends, family or colleagues. This personal (unpaid) advocacy is marketing gold and it stems from genuine trust.

And we know that the higher the brand stakes, the more important the role trust plays. When things go wrong, trust in the brand and its leaders is usually the deciding factor in whether the brand survives or not. Studies also show that for low-level purchases, familiarity (that is, relevance) matters, but when the purchasing stakes are higher, trust matters more.

Maybe the best way to think about trust is to imagine life without it. What if you couldn’t trust your car’s brake system to work anymore? Or your preferred airline to land safely. Or, closer to home, the telco you have paid to stream you live sporting events, to do so glitch-free. How well do you feel about the brand now?

As Warren Buffet once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it.” Getting in front of consumers and securing their attention is one thing. Building and preserving the customer trust is the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, end game.

No, argues Nicole Reaney, director at Inside Out PR: 

Relevance sits at the heart of every brand and its level of performance in a marketplace. Let’s face it, without a market a brand wouldn’t survive. Without trust, a brand uses its relevance to revive.

Facebook, with an Aussie fanbase of 15 million users and 2.5 billion globally has experienced phenomenal growth since it launched in 2004. This year the brand faces its biggest contention yet through data breaches exposing over 50 million users with revelations continuing and its trust barometer left reeling.

And while it’s been reported that 1.8 million Australians have deleted their account as a result, Facebook’s declining relevance has been its biggest PR problem. Despite attempts to improve user experience with the addition of stories and changing algorithms, the number of U.S. Facebook users in the 12 to 17-year-old demographic declined by 9.9% in 2017 – as younger users flock to alternative networks and apps.

The basis of any public relations campaign is defining a brand’s offering and how that connects with its audience. Take Uber for example. The technology, affordability, accessibility and experience offered over the existing cab system attracted users. It was these relevancy messages that were utilised in Uber’s communication with stakeholders. This was despite the attempts by the established transport sector to convey distrust in a new taxi model. By the end of 2017, 3.7 million Australians had travelled by Uber with an expanding age of user groups.

Whether it’s a start-up through to a multinational, when we take on a brief, a brands core connectivity with an audience is the primary hook we utilise in messaging throughout the campaign through to pitches to media. When we launched a new anti-bullying technology, challenged by an unknown brand with zero trust established, the severity and prevalence of online bullying drove its attraction. Extensive global and local media coverage and usage with 150,000 installs in just six weeks.

The same was experienced when we launched a new portable air-conditioning technology. Despite a mature, trusted and globally competitive market, one start-up was able to draw the attention of Aussies with a concept that understood and solved the pressure of rising energy prices.

Relentlessly relevant brands consistently drive us to experience them. They win a following, they win loyalty and they win our empathy whenever trust is challenged.

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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