The Semiotics of Trust Decoding the Trends and Symbols of Trust
The degeneration of trust is a global trend. Widespread media coverage of scandals, cover-ups and lies from politicians to religious leaders has led to a culture of suspicion amongst consumers.
Consumers have lost trust in people in positions of authority and no longer naively trust brands.
This has two key implications for marketers. Firstly, trust is no longer awarded automatically; it has to be earned, based on what you do (your performance and consistency over time). Blithely saying “trust me” is no longer enough. It’s likely to be treated with suspicion.
Secondly, and arguably most importantly, cynical consumers are actively educating themselves. They are beginning to find and share information about the issues important to them, rather than relying on business or other authoritative institutions to tell them what to do.
So what can brands do in this culture of suspicion?
Communicating trust, particularly for brands, can be a tricky business. It’s not easy to express all the elements of trust in one snappy campaign. Consumers see through marketing-speak.
Understanding the semiotics or subconscious codes of trust, can help to dissect how consumers intuit trust and help brands respond to the trust crisis.
The “Trust Instinct”
Understanding trust is a first step. Trust is a complicated emotion. It’s rooted in one part experience, one part instinct and one part blind faith, and engages a range of emotional elements . It also involves a calculated risk of regret.
And yet trust is valued. It underpins all of our relationships, including those we have with brands. So how do we build trust?
In the absence of absolute confidence, we rely on our knowledge and instinct to make a decision that we trust will be the right one. We trust our gut.
This is actually underpinned by science. Research by neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio has helped us understand that our “trust instinct” is actually a complex, neuro-reaction.
At its most basic, Damasio’s work suggests that when faced with a decision, humans use only one criterion in making their choice: “How will I feel if I do that?”
Our decisions are based on both our rational experience and our emotional reaction. We scan our full range of perceptions, experiences and feelings before taking a decision. We remember each experience as good or
bad and store these “somatic markers” as part of our future decision toolkit.
In brand terms, this means our “trust instinct” is based on how we’ve experienced the brand in the past, what our social groups have said about the brand, how the brand has been communicated and what the brand looks like. All these elements help us intuit how that brand will make us feel.
Increased brand choice means that brands can no longer earn trust just through their logo and brand name. Even passive or unsophisticated consumers are far more knowledgeable and empowered than their counterparts twenty or thirty years ago.
Brand ethics are emerging as key. Consumers are more responsible, buying into fair trade, organic and socio-economically sustainable philosophies and products – and are asking why their mainstream brands aren’t following suit. In Germany, for example, 73 percent of consumers have stopped buying a brand due to ethical or environmental reasons.
Consumers now expect brands to be facilitators to help them live their lives and experience new things. The brand relationship is no longer an economic one, but one rooted in connectivity and emotional resonance. The market has moved inexorably from being brand centric, to being consumer centric.
The Communication Codes of Trust
One of the ways consumers intuit trust in a category and for a brand is by unconsciously reviewing the brand choices in that category based on what they say and how they communicate. The colours, shapes, tone, message, textures and other sensorial cues each individual brand uses also form part of that review, helping the consumer enforce the “somatic marker” they have for that brand.
These cues form communication codes which can become consumers’ mental short-hand for understanding the brand and its competitors. Being able to analyse these codes means brand owners are better equipped to deal with shifting markets and increasingly demanding consumers.
A semiotic analysis of the symbols and codes of trust shows that “trust” is usually inferred in three broad categories of codes in brand communication:
Embedding brands in a time scale
• Displaying origin & heritage
• Being a long time consumer champion
Embedding brands in sociability
• Offering transparency
• Showing empathy and care
• Offering social participation
• Offering partnership
• Inviting connectivity
• Being rooted in localism and patriotism
• Pushing negative feelings
Embedding brands in institutions
• Using institutional authority
• Using brand ambassadors
What is interesting is how these codes are used and have evolved.
Communication codes appealing to consumers’ trust have changed from using the “big” and functional claims about the product quality to a more evocative motif that invites consumers to make a personal, intuitive decision to trust the brand.
In semiotic terms, we can see an evolution of codes that have been used to communicate brands’ trustworthiness over time.
By analysing how trust has been invoked in the past (residual), how it’s communicated today (dominant) and what it might look like in the future (emergent), we can begin to understand what the trustworthy brands of the future will look like.
Residual: Big Authority
Residual, or more traditional, trust codes are steeped primarily in an authoritative voice. Think of the old Boland Bank ads “Trust Boland, Boland Bank”. The blue suits and building society ads of the 70s relied on the power of big business to instil a sense of trust and security.
The codes in residual communication include:
Origin & heritage: Consumers’ trust is gained through the story of the brand’s history, told in an authoritative way and further endorsed by claiming to have unsurpassable standards and quality. For example, the Charles Glass ads of Castle Lager, or communications in luxury categories. Bokomo’s reliance on South Africa’s farming heritage is another example.
Long Time Consumer Champion: In this code, trust is built through credibility and reassurance using consumer testimonial or endorsement or simply claiming to be the best choice for the consumer over a long period of time. In other words, brands claim to put the consumer first. Verimark, OUTSurance and Vanish use these cues, although the latter seems to have a fresher, tongue-in-cheek approach.
Similarly, in cleaning product or baby care categories, the “we’re here for you”, consumer champion message is used to infer trust. Tastic’s “perfect every time” claim is another example.
Negative feelings: In this kind of communication, a feeling of trust and security is created by invoking a scary situation or potential risk, which the brand can then resolve. From pain killers to shock absorbers to insurance, the “beware and watch out” message is used to transmute trust to the cautioning brand.
Institutional authority: Here, the trust endorsement is given through statistics and functional language to
support benefits and quality of products. Scientific language, medical advice and third party endorsement through awards and acknowledgements are used to up-weight the brand’s trustworthiness.
Dominant: Communal Confidence
Dominant trust messaging has moved out of the authoritative realm and into a more communal one. Brands currently have moved from functional into emotional communications, offering a relationship rather than a transaction to their consumers. Trust is built through messaging that is friendly and welcoming, using warm and inviting cues. Brands encourage consumers to trust them by implying they will be there, every step of the way.
Codes in dominant trust communications include:
Empathy and care: Brands appeal to consumer’s trust by showing that they understand their needs for comfort and care. Brands using this tactic embrace a welcoming and comfortable tone, using ‘real people’ in their communications and messaging. Sun protection, health and wellness and body care brands, for example, all use this empathetic tone to invite trust. Dove, particularly, has evidenced this in their communications.
Social participation: Brands invite trust by providing consumers with products and services that help them make ethical or socially responsible choices. They use codes that express that they are true to their values. The Body Shop, for example, is a classic example of brand trust built on ethical values.
Partnership: Trust is implied by offering togetherness and co-creating opportunities to consumers as a means for them to develop their own lives. Banks offering start up financing, for example, use communications that invite partnership. The ABSA “My Bank” campaign also implies that the bank can be trusted with all parts of the consumer’s life.
Localism and patriotism: Showing national pride and local relevance is a strong way to gain consumer trust.
Proudly South African, Stoned Cherrie, Spur, SA Tourism and others all rely on the trust inferred by their “South Africanness”. Trust built through local relevance gives the feeling that the brand understands you and your unique cultural heritage. Loxion Kulcha, for example, is rooted in township mores and ideals.
Brand Ambassadors: Using people of high regard to endorse a brand transfers the trust of that person’s choices to the brand itself and is a powerful cue for consumers. Celebrity endorsement of luxury items like the bags and accessories of Louis Vuitton or the endorsement of Tiger Woods for a sports brand Nike can up-weight a consumer’s trust in the brand’s message.
Emergent: Right for Me
Emerging codes of trust are in line with the rise of the pro-sumer. Consumers are no longer happy with a brand just showing or communicating trust, they have to prove they are worth the trust. Consumers are tired of being played or being let down and are responding to brands who offer the “real deal”.
Emergent cues include:Transparency: Transparency on every level is becoming the must-have of emerging trustworthy brands. Honesty and openness in terms of “this is who we are, we haven’t got anything to hide” is the real challenge for brands going forward.
Country of origin, fair-trade, ethical business practices; brands are being watched by their consumers for their social behaviour.
Consumers want brands to be who they say they are. One way marketers are doing this is by telling the story behind their products and brands by showcasing the real people behind them. Woolworths, for example, uses the images and stories of the farmers behind their fresh and organic produce. This kind of communication has probably been one of the reasons for Virgin’s continued success; consumers know and trust the Richard Branson story.
Brands can build their reputation through transparency and that reputation can be used as collateral in the trust exchange.
Connectivity: Brands are also showing they understand different types of relationship (family, motherhood, romance, pregnancy etc.) and demonstrating how they can make these relationships work better.
Telecommunications and technology brands specifically, are invoking the emotional benefits of connectivity, rather than the purely functional ones. They are inviting consumers to trust them to keep them tapped into the people they love and the social groups they identify with.
Brands are also using increasingly niched communication strategies to connect with consumers who lead increasingly diverse lives. Rama talking to the mother who blogs and MTN talking to the YouTube user are just some of the ways brands are doing this.
The Trust Conundrum
What this means is that brands can no longer rely on the communications codes of the past to engender trust. A man in a suit with an authoritative voice is not going to convince a
consumer that your brand is trustworthy.
Building trust is about diminishing that perceived risk of regret and replacing faith-based trust with absolute confidence. The big challenge for brands is that communicating trust is just the starting point of a lasting brand relationship.
So, assuming you have your communications codes bang on target to convey trust, brands also need to know how they are going to prove that trust, from sales and point-of-purchase activity to post-purchase service and the ongoing brand experience.
Dr. Inka Crosswaite is a passionate semiotics analyst for marketing insight company, Added Value and is one of South Africa’s few commercial semioticians. Before that, she was a lecturer at UCT and at the University of Stellenbosch, specialising in research methodology, semiotics and cultural studies. She received her Doctorate from the Faculty of Social Anthropology at UCT.