How to be a more trustworthy brand

Ally Waring, Senior Strategist at Iris on the three characteristics that can provide brands with the building blocks to prove their trustworthiness: competency, character and care.

Ally Waring, Iris

Senior Strategist


It's World Mental Health Day this month. And every year I find it's a good opportunity to reflect on my own mental health.

Despite everything this year has thrown at us, I'm lucky enough to say my own is in a decent, alright...ya know, stable, place. So, my next thought was one of how our mental health as a society is changing overall. And to say it's totally effed would be an understatement.

With fewer places to turn to for refuge, we have less sense of certainty, bringing both high- and low-level anxiety, stress and panic. Everything from the environment (climate change), political leaders (Bojo/Trumpy), our economy (incoming recession), social networks (fake news), identity (stay or leave) and now our health (the C-word) are in a constant state of flux. Feel stressed yet? Yup.

And it's because of this sense of uncertainty that we've experienced a breakdown in trust. A breakdown in trust of pretty much everything.

So, to find our feet again, we all have to go back to basics: to find refuge in other ways. What we put our faith in has to change.

But when I think about that in context of what I do for a job, convincing people through creativity of the benefits and reasons why they should choose certain brands, that presents a pretty big problem.

Because how do you convince people that brands and businesses are trustworthy in this current climate? I have a theory.

Trust theory.png

The above model is based on a fantastic social psychology theory devised specifically for teams of soldiers; it’s designed to form trust at one of the most threatening points in their careers: war and combat. 

The psychologist behind this was a chap named Patrick J. Sweeney, a U.S. Army colonel, and he concluded that trust has three core elements: competency, character and care.

And I believe these three characteristics can provide the building blocks to help brands prove their trustworthiness to people like you and me.

Competency has to radiate from the inside-out.

Ally Waring


Take Competency. Doing the job properly, essentially. Consistently proving your ability to provide the product or service your brand offers, day-in, day-out.

If you do not have a proven track record of getting the job done and providing that service/product, you will be perceived as incompetent. Customers get frustrated, angry and ultimately lose trust.

So, businesses need to nail their basic competencies from the bottom up: looking at infrastructure, culture, systems, processes, teams, the list goes on.

A business that does this fantastically well is Ocado. Very recently, when every other supermarket seemed to be in meltdown by limiting online orders, they kept delivering over and above the likes of the Big Five.

It’s worth noting also that whilst all these things take huge amounts of time, money and effort to get right, ultimately, like a well-made film, you don't want anyone to take notice of the production required to get it right.

Because the minute a customer notices it, they've been snagged by an obstacle, an incompetency, in the process. Attentions divert to the bad things, rather than the good.

So, for this first stage of trust to really sing, a business can’t just be perceived as operationally ‘good’. Competency has to radiate from the inside-out.


Next up, Character. Competence is a real necessity for trust. But on its own, it's not nearly enough.

A competent brand that has bad Character e.g. is disloyal to customers, treats them poorly or is disrespectful, is simply not trusted by their customers.

If customers are going to trust a brand, they need to understand how it behaves. What’s the brand’s response when something goes wrong? How do they reward loyal customers? And what can they expect from the brand in times of need?

An example. ‘We’re on your side’, Lloyd’s Bank tell us. But if they don’t deliver on that promise, they will only break the trust that might have been already formed through competent delivery of service.

This is where a brand’s values come into play, as a demonstration of character.

By setting the standards for their organisation, brands can set the principles by which they handle customer complaints, the process for when something goes wrong, or the way they celebrate a customer’s long-time relationship with them.

Brands can no longer think just about saving money in these uncertain times; they need to prioritise their customers’ trust too.

Ally Waring


And the final one. Care. I'd argue, the most important.

Because Care is the truest test of a businesses' mettle. What matters to them more: saving as much money as is commercially possible? Or putting their customers first?

An example from one of the brands I work with is Suzuki. They’re ‘a small fish in a very big pond’ when it comes to the wider world of automotive brands. But they have overcome uncertain times by playing to their core competencies, character and ability to care for their customers: by hero-ing their award-winning dealers. The dealers' job it is to literally care for the customers, make them a cuppa and help them choose their next car. Making them the face of the brand in times like these puts a human face to a very non-human era.

So, when brands truly care, and demonstrate this in practice, they can build on their Competency and Character to form trust.

In the face of a world gripped with uncertainty, experiencing a breakdown in trust, there is something brands can do to prove their trustworthiness: demonstrate competence, build on character and most importantly, care.

Because if what we put our faith in is changing, for the future sake of their business, brands can no longer think just about saving money in these uncertain times; they need to prioritise their customers’ trust too.

Guest Author

Ally Waring, Iris

Senior Strategist,


Originating from the world of CRM and CX, Ally is a Senior Strategist at Iris. She specialises in marrying data-led insight with brave creative solutions. Alongside her current role she also lectures in Advertising at The University of the Arts.

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