Trust Me: Here's Why Brands Sell Trust, Subconsciously

Evidence points to information from trusted sources getting a better hold on our brains than the noise from everything else. So it's no surprise that companies want to capitalize on those feelings.

Let's say that not that long ago you came across a fascinating article. But when you later try to verify some of the facts, you just can't pinpoint exactly where you first read it. What you do recall is that the source was reliable and you trusted the message. This is a situation I find myself in quite regularly. So much so, that I've pondered the conundrum and come up with a theory: we store information according to how trustworthy we deem the source of the message to be.

There's more to it. Trust isn't the only criteria we impose on information we receive every day, it's also linked to the emotional relationship we've developed with the source. Take for example your average mother. No one is more familiar with her children than she; nevertheless she still manages to call one adult child by their sibling's name—undoubtedly the cause of much family mirth. Funnily, as you get a little older, you find your name memory beginning to fade too. You call a close friend by your brother's name, and so the common misnomer baton moves on to embrace the next generation. You may try to joke your embarrassment away, but have you ever pondered the reasons for this common form of memory stumble?

Many studies demonstrate that trust, above all else, becomes a more salient feature in our life as we grow older. Perhaps it's because with our accumulated years, we've had our fingers burnt—more than once—by trusting the wrong people. Now, older and wiser, we begin categorizing our surroundings based on the level of trust we have developed. There's our inner circle, consisting of family members and longstanding friends. Our brains deem all those who occupy the inner circle to be trustworthy. Trust first, name second. I believe this to be the reason why I often confuse my best friend's name with my close cousin.

In a 2010 study conducted by Harvard professor Bharat Anand, and Alezander Rosinski, they examined how the power of ads are influenced by the magazine or newspaper they appear in. By placing the same ad in the respected Economist and perhaps the less respected Huffington Post, they discovered that the more respected the publication, the more people would trust and recall the ad. Above and beyond understanding how the context of the message influences the level of trust we assign it, I wanted to find out to what extent this would influence the speed in which the message is shared and if it leads us to buy more.

Which brings me back to my theory on how we store information according to our levels of trust. I put this theory to the test during the course of a research experiment I conducted for my newest book Brandwashed. A carefully selected Californian family was tasked with spreading brand messages to anyone and everyone in their social circle. The important component of this was that the only means to spread the message was by word-of-mouth. Their home was monitored using 35 hidden cameras over a period of three months.

Everyone involved in the process was asked to send a text message to a central server every time they would think of a brand. By correlating this data with sales figures from all the participating brands, we would begin to understand when and how a word-of-mouth recommendation takes hold. We'd also come to understand the dynamics involved in the message taking hold. ChatThreads, a company that quantifies the impact of consumer brand encounters, was responsible for tracking these particular messages.

We learned that when a person we trust makes a recommendation, we not only follow their advice, but we also convey the trust of the initial communication to others. One leads to the next, and the next, and the next ... The message being spread follows a subtle trajectory, but it begins with the belief that the initial source is thoroughly reliable.

One of the most fascinating things that emerged from the Brandwashed experiment was the importance of how the message was transmitted—the words used, the tone of voice adopted, the inflection and enthusiasm conveyed. When these behavioral components come together in the right measure, sales are likely to soar.

But there was one observation that totally surprised me. As part of the experiment we'd asked our test family to adopt an environmentally conscious behavior. To assist them in this endeavor, we brought in experts to advise the family on changing their patterns of consumption. They taught them how to recycle and conserve. We wanted to see if it was possible to effect change amongst hundreds of families' daily routine by introducing new behaviors at the highest levels of trust—from the experts down. In other words, could a single family's environmentally conscious behavior set the standard for their social circle and thus create widespread change?

The answer was a clear and resounding "Yes!" Close to 31% of the thousands of people affected by the experimental family changed their recycling and conserving habits.

Combining ChatThreads' brand tracking data with the sales and observational figures led to a simple key learning: Deep trust is communicated subconsciously. It's rarely expressed explicitly, nor is imparted loudly or didactically. To trust deeply not only can change our minds, but it has the power to alter our most ingrained behaviors. It's a subtle emotion that the average commercial message fails to embody. Traditional television and radio ads tend to shout their slogans and persuasive urgings. And although we're generally conscious of what these ads are pushing, we are more likely to shy away.

I guess I've made my case. Now all that remains is the question of whether I'm to be trusted. Undoubtedly, your brain has already made up its mind.

Brandwashed Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best—seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

Read more by Lindstrom: Why Your Car Is The Next Advertising Battleground

[Image: Flickr user nicsnell, top: bombeador]

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  • Cassandra Boehlke

    Great article! I will be buying a copy of Brandwashed. Thank you!

  • Tom Morel

    Genius article, Martin. Trust is the one thing so many brands fail to pursue. Instead, it's all about getting them to buybuybuy. Relational Marketing is much stronger (not to mention more profitable) than traditional Transactional Marketing, but because it takes time -- and effort -- many dodge-n-duck it. I can't wait to read your book.

  • Wize Adz

    It's true.  As a customer, I want to trust something.  But, alas, repetitive commercials screaming at me from my TV are annoying and not trustworthy.

    No, television advertising isn't marketing.  But it's a big enough chunk of it that it's easy to paint the whole profession with a broad brush.  I actually enjoy B2B marketing (both sides of the table), since you exchange information in an adult fashion and often build a meaningful relationship.  This is quite different from consumer brands, in which screaming slogans at me and showing cute polar bears is supposed to earn my lifelong devotion and turn me in to a slavish "brand ambassador", without actually telling me a damn thing about the product or what makes it tick.

    Saying that a brand is about trust is a big step toward more substance and less BS.  For a guy like me, the best way to earn my trust is a) openness with technical information b) good design/engineering c) human and responsive support.  Yes, I'm a technical guy, and people say that makes me a minority and insist that being able to change my own oil makes my perspective on these topics is irrelevant.  But is it really so strange to want to know what I'm buying, know that it's good, and know that I can get parts and support if something doesn't go as planned?