Trust these days is a complicated issue. Take financial services: we trust them enough to pay our earnings into them, but then accuse them of being money grabbing, and of charging too high rates — all in the same breath.

We implicitly trust financial institutions at a very deep level not to lose our money. They are safe, secure and, despite all their shortcomings, the right place to put one’s money — but that is also why the tremors from Northern Rock’s collapse were felt for so long.

The 1990s was the decade where corporate reputation came of age, with organisations starting to realise the need for transparency and accountability in an age of faltering trust. Some 18 years on, and despite all the various means with which brand owners can communicate with consumers, and consumers with one another, and we appear to have progressed very little.

For sure, the techniques or tools are readily available. Indeed, the pages of the marketing press are full of them: terms such as word of mouth, advocacy, influencers, Web 2.0, social networking, herd decisions and so on fairly trip off the tongue.

Dangers of simplistic approach

These are only tools, though, or mediums. They are only as good, or as honest, as the messages they communicate. There is a tendency to adopt a simplistic approach to trust: word of mouth is good, brands are bad. But life is much more complicated than that.

Take a brand like Unilever’s Dove. It broke new ground with its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, using ‘real’ people rather than models to act as advocates for its brand. Yet when Unilever recently brought out a new campaign for its Lynx/Axe brands, one consumer was driven to respond by taking footage from the Dove ‘Onslaught’ viral, combining it with a tongue-in-cheek, but overtly sexist ad for Lynx, also known as Axe, and devising their own viral spoof. It ended with the line ‘Talk to your daughter, before Unilever does’, playing on the original viral’s endline, ‘Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.’

While brand owners invest an enormous amount of research in working out how people make decisions and where they can play an influencing role, the notion of trust at this higher level is often overlooked.

As my colleague Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue says in his analysis of the decision-making process, “In close analysis of that moment of decision, what becomes clear is not that people have suddenly learnt the killer fact they didn’t have before, but that they have just found their most trusted source.”

Shortened decision making

He goes on to say that, while this is often word of mouth, “there is no earthly reason why brands should be the most trusted source…there’s one practical reason why people want to trust brands — it shortens decision making.”

Which? Turned 50 last year, celebrating a half century of championing consumer rights and lobbying government and industry on behalf of all consumers. Its reputation was built on its ability to provide independent and trustworthy advice on products and services, yet in the noughties it was finding life tough.

Its solution was to go back to basics, discover what existing and potential consumers wanted, and provide it to them. It decided to provide people who were looking to buy in specific product areas with free guides, free research, on how to buy — just not what to buy. Its work in this area has proved so successful that existing members rang up to ask for the guides, while subscriber numbers rose year on year for the first time in seven years.

Which? Reinforced its position as a trusted source, something which had been forgotten over the years. Yet trust can erode just as quickly. Back in 2005, travellers had started to latch on to independent sources of information on hotels and holiday destinations, using a number of brands, including Trip Advisor, to plan their journeys. It meant that they no longer had to take on trust the claims of tour operators or travel agents.

Trip Advisor became the innocent victim (guilty by association) when authorship doubts about reviews on sites in this sector emerged last year. Now travellers are learning to read reviews with a much more careful eye, trying to filter information and second guess whether they could have been written by someone who was a professional.

That warm feeling

All of which goes to show that brands can inspire trust, by virtue of their core values. Lee suggests that the core characteristics of trust should mirror those that we attribute to human beings whom we we trust: generosity, transparency and wisdom, which together add up to a feeling of ‘warmth’.

So, how can we apply this learning to Qualitative Research?

The idea of sharing problems and partnering with people makes our relationship with them — and thefore the quality of our research — much stronger because we’re being open with them. It adds up to trust. This means sharing problems with research participants and partnering them to obtain a solution rather than shielding them from the real reason for research in the hopes of maintaining objectivity. We need to recognise that brands can be a most trusted source and explore this in research, rather than accepting the old fashioned linear models of decision which don’t factor this in.

Ultimately, I hope that brands realise that, though they are closely scrutinised, they can help their own cause by being honest and capable of inspiring trust. As for qualitative research, if we can do the same the quality of our work will improve immeasurably.