Trust and transparency are more critical than ever in today’s work environment, particularly as leaders take on the ultimate business challenge: building brand trust.
Since we entered the Social Age, the corporate world has promoted the idea of being “transparent.” For even longer, we’ve talked about our desire to build brand “trust.” But rarely do we talk about building brand trust directly through transparency. Today, we’ll change that.
According to Interaction Associates, trust comes down to three factors:
- Past behavior. Have you delivered in the past?
- Capability. Can you deliver on the promises made today?
- Alignment. Do I care enough about your brand’s purpose? Do we have shared goals?
And in our always-on, ever-connected world, there is another equally important factor:
- Transparency. Can I trust when something goes wrong, you’ll be honest enough to tell the world?
Volkswagen’s 2015 cover-up of emissions data is a classic example of the power of this fourth trust factor.
Based on past performance, the world believed the company to be trustworthy. Auto buyers clearly felt the brand was more than capable of delivering today and in the future. And consumers all over the world were aligned enough with Volkswagen’s products to choose VWs over other available makes, making it the bestselling automaker in the world, according to Statista.
Past behavior? Check. Capability? Check. Alignment? Check, check.
Transparency? Nope. Not even close. After all, a “cover-up,” in which facts are deliberately obscured, is the exact opposite of “transparency.”
And that is what makes Volkswagen a much different company today. Yet after all the significant setbacks—steep declines in their stock price, the loss of key employees, the closure of dealerships, and $15 billion in buybacks and fines in the United States alone—VW embraced the fourth factor of trust: transparency. They became a glass house. They invited scrutiny. They owned their short-term failures. And today, they remain the largest automaker—and one of the largest employers—in the world.
So what can a leader faced with the challenge of building a trustworthy overall brand—and an employer brand capable of attracting top talent—learn from the Volkswagen experience? How can transparency become an even more important factor than past behavior, capability and alignment? How does your brand earn trust, even in the middle of what Edelman’s research calls a “Trust Crisis?”
Be deliberately honest.
Here are three ways to establish—and retain—genuine trust in your brand:
1. Serve as Company Historian
Know what saved Volkswagen? It wasn’t their leadership who, until the day undeniable proof of a cover-up was presented, denied any wrong-doing. It was the company’s past—how well they had treated customers, suppliers, industry influencers and employees for decades—that was their saving grace.
When the social media lynch mob is storming the gates, it’s easy to forget all the good work your organization has done in the past. Leverage your network. Turn your employees—those who still believe in your potential—into brand ambassadors. And remind those looking for an excuse to line up the firing squad of the integrity shown through past behaviors.
2. Focus on Building (or Rebuilding) Relationships
Human nature dictates that it’s easy to vilify what—or who—we don’t know. It is much more difficult, however, to turn against someone we know personally; someone we once trusted—and who, someday again, will be trustworthy again.
Sure, it’s easy in today’s digital world to focus on online contacts and acquaintances over mutually-beneficial human-to-human relationships. It’s easier to count followers and likes than it is to be known as someone the world finds genuinely likeable. But as the cliché goes: “When the chips are down, we find out who our real friends are.” So take the time—when times are good—to show the good your organization is capable of.
3. Be Consistently Honest (Both in Intent and Actions)
Deliberately make honesty part of your company culture. Starting today. Right now. Say what you’re going to do (intent). And when you can’t live up to that promise, when a mistake is made or failure becomes imminent, own it (action). Make clear that even the biggest issue—from an innocent mistake to a corporate character flaw—will be dealt with fairly and openly. Not by assessing blame. Or through worship of the problem. But by getting the right people in the right room at the right time, and focusing exclusively on solutions.
And along the way, report the solution team’s progress. Let others see what you’re working on and why. Perhaps even let them be part of the decision making process. After all, alignment is still a big issue in building trust.
Be deliberately honest. Let them see trust is a top-down expectation. Let customers, partners, industry influencers—and especially your current and future employees—see that you, as a leader, are focused on both trust and transparency. And trust, through transparency, will happen.