In a tough climate for brands, messages are increasingly filtered through a sceptical lens. People get their trusted information about brands from family, friends, co-workers and from the pooled wisdom of the wider population, so, as Mike Teasdale explains, getting the basics right is paramount if you want to build brand trust.

As Mr. T might say, ‘It’s April, fool’, so it’s that time of year when hoaxes abound. From left-handed burgers to tartan paint to plastic poo, all manner of lame April Fools’ Day gags are inflicted on weary victims. And all-time classic hoaxes get yet another outing in the media, like familiar movies rolled out at Christmas.

So, Americans read about the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds starring Orson Welles that caused panic in the streets (though as we now know, the tales of panic were largely invented by the newspaper industry who were keen to cast radio in a bad light). And Brits are regaled by the tale of how in 1957 the BBC reported on the annual Swiss spaghetti harvest, leading people to try to buy spaghetti plants.

Ah, simpler times! When people trusted institutions more than they do today. And that’s the point, because for hoaxes to work, there must be trust, and trust is something that seems to be in short supply these days.

It’s certainly the case in news media, where there is so much biased advocacy and fake news (or ‘alternative facts’) that it feels like every day is April Fools’ Day. And it’s getting worse, with the sophistication of deception outrunning truth verification technology.

But it’s not just in the news media. Everywhere you look, there seem to be declining trust levels as people become increasingly cynical. Our trust in major institutions has been eroding for decades as we’ve been burned time and again by spectacular trust fails. Everything from insider trading to emissions scandals to contaminated drugs. And now it seems that even some aid charities can’t be trusted to offer help in disaster zones without exploiting those they are supposed to be helping. The moral is, if your mum says she loves you, it’s probably true, but everything else needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

This is a tough climate for brands, with messages being filtered through a sceptical lens. In America, 60% don’t trust brands to live up to their promises. In the UK, lack of trust prompts 40% to switch companies. This lack of trust is particularly felt in digital, with half of UK consumers concerned about data privacy. Companies know that consumers are more likely to shop with them if they personalise experiences, but to be able to do so they need consumers to share personal information, and they will only do that if they are confident their data is protected. This Catch-22 will only get worse as the level of insight needed grows to include biometric, geo-location and even genomic data. The imminent arrival of GDPR just adds to the complexity brands face in this area.

So, what’s a brand to do to gain/retain trust in this cynical climate? Well, ever the optimist, I don’t buy into the notion of a so-called ‘trust deficit’ for brands. Times are more cynical yes, but trust is still there to be won. The knack is to understand that the nature of trust is changing as technology evolves. Trust is becoming less centralised and more distributed.

People are getting their trusted information about brands from family, friends, co-workers, and from the pooled wisdom of the wider population. None of us is as smart as all of us. Whether I am booking accommodation using Airbnb or buying and selling on eBay, I am increasingly trusting in the opinions of others to influence my choices. Social media keeps brands honest. It emboldens consumers to speak their mind and companies can’t get away with as much as they might like to because of it. Going forward, blockchain technology represents another evolution of distributed trust. Blockchain might be hard to explain but it’s not hard to see the benefit of public ledgers over central banks or regulatory bodies.

For me, the formula for brands in this landscape is about ensuring you do three things at every communications touchpoint. First, make sure you deliver what you promise. Actions always speak louder than words (e.g. Geico has succeeded by repeatedly delivering against its ‘15 minutes or less can save you 15% or more on car insurance’ promise). Second, really listen to your customers. Even when it involves an uncomfortable truth (e.g. KFC and its apology ad for the UK distribution meltdown recently). Third, do the right thing. By your employees as well as by your customers (e.g. Unilever and its Sustainable Living Plan that puts other conglomerates to shame in both ambition and delivery).

It’s not rocket science. But then most things aren’t. April Fools’ Day gags might benefit from being elaborate, but brand trust is about getting the basics right, fool.