Would you buy an Apple iChicken? Our CEO, Flint McGlaughlin, often jokes that “If Apple released an iChicken, people would be lined up and down the streets to buy it.”
At some point or another, we’ve all bought a product because of the brand name. But why do we prefer name brand cereal over the store brand? Why are Yeezys so much cooler than the $20 knock-offs on Amazon? Most of the time, it’s because we expect a certain kind of experience from the brands we trust. Cute logos and catchy slogans cannot build a brand powerful enough to sell the world an iChicken. The only way to build an effective brand is to earn your customers’ trust.
Trust, however, is not a static element; it is constantly changing. Every interaction with your value proposition impacts your customers’ trust, and in turn, your brand. Consider, for instance, what might happen after people bought the iChicken. Assuming the metaphorical product is as useless as it sounds, customers’ expectations of Apple would likely be damaged. Next time a new product is released, customers might think twice before jumping in line. Apple may have spent years building trust, but if a brand fails to meet their customers’ expectations, that trust is diminished.
Thus, this raises a more important question for the marketer: How do you build a brand that could sell an iChicken?
The most successful companies in the world do not rely on a brand promise, they cultivate a brand expectation. In order to build a trustworthy brand, marketers must use inference as a tool with which to create an expectation in the mind of the customer, and then deliver on it consistently. But people are not simple, and likewise, this process of earning their trust is not simple.
The Trust Trial
When engaging in a decision-making process, customers begin a subconscious cycle in the mind called “The Trust Trial.” This trial goes through five repeating phases: Customers must (1) observe your offer, in order to form a (2) conclusion about that offer within the context of their own needs, leading them to (3) decide what action they will take. This decision is then paired with an (4) expectation of your offer, which is ultimately calibrated by the (5) experience. Once a customer has experienced your offer, the trust trial restarts.
Let’s take a closer look …
While it may seem obvious, observation is a complex and important phase for your customers. Customers are not simply looking at your offer, they are searching for your value proposition — a reason to invest interest. Every piece of data presented to your customer must lead them to infer the value of your offer. Marketing cannot make claims, it must foster conclusions. We often focus so much on achieving a conversion, that we forget the many other things our customers are focused on. When a customer is in the observation phase of The Trust Trial, the marketer must present the right data, at the right time, in the right order, within the customer’s thought-sequence, to guide them toward the desired conclusions.
A customer’s conclusions are inferred by the data that has been made available to them. It depends entirely on the marketer to encode their message in a way that the customer comes to two ultimate conclusions: The product can, and the company will. These two conclusions are happening in a sort of micro trust trial throughout the cycle of trust trials. The marketer has value that needs to be perceived and a truth that needs to be believed. Trust is contingent upon the marketer’s ability to foster these necessary conclusions. But the marketer must remember that the conclusion is tentative; it only locks when you experience it. And it must be consistently reinforced.
The decision phase is more than just the final decision to purchase. While the final decision may be the most important for your bottom line, there are many micro-decisions customers must make first. Customers must decide whether to read past your headline, to click on “learn more,” to fill out a form, etc. If the marketer fails to carefully guide their customer through each of these micro-decisions, then they won’t even make it to the final decision. Using the power of inference, the marketer must leverage the observation and conclusion phases to reinforce, not only the company’s value proposition, but the particular product’s value proposition as well.
All of marketing serves to create an expectation in the mind of the customer. Many companies talk about their “brand-promise,” but most customers don’t even know what a brand-promise is. And if it doesn’t exist in the mind of the customer, then it really doesn’t exist at all. Companies should not be focused on creating a brand-promise, but rather on developing a brand-expectation through the consistent experience of the value proposition. Every interaction with your brand develops an expectation in the mind of the customer about what they are going to experience. Whether or not this expectation is met determines the strength of your brand.
Ultimately, brand is the aggregate experience of the value proposition. Each experience, from the first to the last, compounds to either build or diminish trust. Sometimes, the longer you know someone, the more you trust them. And sometimes, it goes the other way … Consider, for instance, a president who wants to be re-elected. They spend months campaigning, making promises and creating an expectation of how they plan to run the country. Then, after being elected, they fail to keep those promises. Four years later and it’s time for the next election, but the country no longer trusts this president. The experience did not meet the expectation that was created for them. Now, what do you think the chances of that re-election would be? Every experience begins a new trust trial in the mind of the customer and determines the probability of a future engagement. While you can gain your customers’ confidence in the inference process, it is ultimately the experience that calibrates trust — and trust which drives the power of your brand.
We put this concept to the test in an experiment conducted by MECLABS Institute, the parent research organization of MarketingExperiments, with an organization that sells language learning products for people who want to learn a language fast. The group asked MECLABS to run a test with the goal of isolating the variable(s) leading to high order cancellations and fewer people choosing to keep their product.
When analyzing the original page, the team found a small disclaimer hidden beneath all their marketing copy. Their 30-day free trial wasn’t actually so free; for each course you keep during your trial, the company bills you four monthly payments of $64 dollars. The team hypothesized that customers may be missing this disclaimer until it shows up on their bill, leading them to doubt the company’s honesty. If the information was presented earlier in the funnel, customers may be less likely to convert — but the goal of a test is not to get a lift, but to get a learning. So, the team designed a treatment in which the disclaimer was communicated more clearly and emphasized earlier on the landing page. As expected, the results showed a 78.6% decrease in conversions.
While this result didn’t make the company more money, it revealed how their offer may have been misleading their customers. Marketers often tend to prioritize a conversion over the customer relationship, but this mistake can have long-term impacts on a business. You may be able to fool someone with your marketing once, but if you fail to deliver on your promises, you will fail your customers’ trust trial and lose their loyalty — which is worth far more over time than one conversion.
What does this mean for marketers?
The Trust Trial is not a marketing technique; it is the essence of building genuine relationships. Often, marketers forget the human-ness of our customers. We forget that trust is the currency of any relationship. Whether deciding on a college, a spouse or even a cell phone, people must be able to trust they have made the best choice.
If we hope to create sustainable competitive advantage and a lasting brand, we cannot treat customers merely as “leads” and “opportunities” whose sole purpose is to increase our revenue. We must understand and care for each milestone of the customer’s experience of our value proposition. In the end, regardless of the size of your company, your brand depends on your customer relationship, and in order to sustain it, the marketer must earn their customers’ trust. And then earn it again and again.