How to Build Trust in Your Brand, Part 1: The Biology of Trust

Trust: it is the holy grail of branding. However else you define yourself (prestigious, creative, luxurious, stylish…), branding experts say that no attribute is more valuable than “trust.” Become known as “trusted” and victory is yours: customer loyalty, price stability, word-of-mouth advertising, employee recruitment and retention…the list is lengthy and amazingly valuable to both your bottom line and your peace of mind.

In future posts, we’ll explore the anatomy of trust: what it is, how it works; how to gain it and, most critically, how it is lost. But today I want to begin by asking the “why” question: Why is trust so valuable? Why does it provoke such an immediate and consistent response in us? Why is being trusted worth so much more to your company than being “sexy” or “exclusive” or “innovative” (which we know to be very powerful motivators)?

Recent research into both brain science and evolutionary biology offers a compelling answer: trust is biologically connected to our survival mechanism. Though in western culture we often try to deny it, one of the first lessons we learn in this world is that we need others. Whether it’s fending off the wooly mammoth or facing a hostile boardroom, you aren’t going to last very long on your own. Trusted allies are an incredibly valuable resource. And our brains put a premium on finding them.

Consequently, when a person or an organization is recognized as trustworthy, a deep psychological bond is formed. We are drawn by primal instinct to those whose partnership creates peace, security and predictability in our lives. And we tend to root ourselves into those relationships. We count on them to provide the stability that allows us to take creative risks, which, in turn is what moves us all forward. In other words, trust both soothes primal human fears and gives us the ability to take on the future. No wonder trust is so powerful. And no wonder we are biologically wired to reciprocate.

But posers beware! The same survival instincts that cause us to value trust so deeply also cause us to reject those who appear unreliable or deceptive. We may be fooled for a while (humans are only mediocre lie detectors in any specific situation). But evolution has hard wired within us the ability discern defectors. And when they are discovered, to protect the tribe, we feel compelled to spread the word (e.g., Amazon reviews, Yelp, Consumer Reports…). Furthermore, our loyalty to those we trust compels us to punish the cheaters, even when that punishment comes at a cost to us (e.g., not purchasing a product that benefits you, personally, when you know the producer is harming others).

So, if creating value is what you seek, your chief priority is creating trust. We humans hard wired to seek it and to reward it with cooperation and loyalty. But if “trust” is only a veneer or later betrayed, know that you face an equally primal response. Mother Nature will compel people to spread the word, and if the harm is big enough, they will sacrifice to see you punished. All the more reason to build a culture of virtue within your organization, starting now!

Next time we’ll take a look at component pieces of trust. Can we break trust down into its elements so that we know where to focus our energies in building it?

If you have questions or comments, I’m always delighted to receive them. This blog is for you, so if you have a topic you’d like me to discuss, just say the word.




Want to do some further reading? Here are two original sources used in this post:

  • Nowak, Martin and Roger Highfield. SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Free Press, 2011. (This and other suggested titles can be found in my Recommended Reading for the Ethical Executive.)


  • Wasieleski, David and Sefa Hayibor. “Evolutionary Psychology and Business Ethics Research.” Business Ethics Quarterly 4 (2009): 587-616. (See the abstract.)

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