The global operating system on which all modern businesses run is built on trust. Always has been, always will be. However, the way businesses have been building (and signaling) trust has changed significantly over the years.
Trust Level 1: Good Reputation
For entire centuries, trust has been an extension of one’s reputation. And reputation has been an extension of “belonging”. To a tribe. To a good family. To a social class. To some other special group. These were the golden years of fraternities and business clubs. Country clubs and old boys’ clubs.
This made sense when people used to move (and do business) in relatively small and static circles. Information moved slowly and almost exclusively through gatekeepers. There was very little change from one generation to the next. You’d trust someone you’d know. Or whose uncle you’d know. Someone who would have a reputation to lose beyond the deal in question.
A lot of this legacy dynamic still extends into the modern day (where “belonging” = alum of a certain school, for example), but overall, as businesses went global, information moved fast the whole reputation thing had to evolve.
Trust Level 2 — Manufactured narratives
With the advent of the “new mediums” of radio, television and daily newspapers, people and businesses — still conscious of the importance of reputation — learned that it is now possible to manufacture reputations on an industrial scale. This is the era of the Mad Men. Of brand campaigns and brand equity.
The playbook was simple: be out there and be consistent. Tap into people’s feelings. Make them feel good about themselves. People will eventually recognize you and go “Oh, I know this brand. I need this thing. Worth my money”.
Pappy O’Daniel was ahead of the curve: “You don’t tell your pappy how to court the electorate. We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here. We’re MASS communicating”
The insurgents of the time invested in smart, clever marketing campaigns and shot past their larger, but slower-to-adapt competitors, who were still relying on their “good reputation” for business.
Companies loved this era: they could control every aspect of their presentation. Their messaging was going one way and one way only (“Above the Line” and “Below the line”), and they owned the volume button, too.
People’s feedback — collected in organized focus groups, if at all — was nothing but an input into fine-tuning this monologue. Every so often, a letter to the editor or a journalist with a score to settle would provide a little bump to the whole thing, but that would be drowned quickly by more ad spending and simply the passing of time.
Everyone just moved with the program.
Trust Level 3 — Power to the People
Then, the Internet happened. In the early days on “the web”, trust was just simply not a thing. No-one knew or trusted the other person. The idea that you’d transact with some anonymous person was laughable. More so by companies that did well in the previous era and who build their models trust with ads and armies of helpful sales people.
Yet, the people found a new super-power. First, random websites emerged where anonymous consumers would grumble about bad experiences with this and the other brand. Then they started curating lists of favorite/ least favorite brands across various categories. Fans groups emerged organically. Followed by pressure groups. And of, course, the trolls on either side.
Few in C-suites took these new trends seriously. In fact most brands wouldn’t even know or care or, proverbially, laugh it off — “kids on the internet”. Even worse, many brands made conscious decisions to dissociate themselves with these scrappy elements that seemed to have no spending power and therefore were of no interest to them whatsoever.
These businesses — yesterday’s successful insurgents — were so confident in the power of their advertising voodoo that they just had a laugh and, maybe, doubled down on their ad spending. Most of them failed to recognize the insurgence mounting and paid dearly for it.
The change was slow at first — it always is — until the point when everything changed, pretty much over night. Legend has it that eBay was the first to encourage people to review their experience with each other. In any case, soon enough, ANY transaction required reviews.
Eventually, reviews on the internet extended to the real world to the point that anyone in any industry — including small local businesses , including B2B— cannot survive these days without ensuring they have solid reviews from real people.
The monologue of old became a conversation. The business establishment of the previous era had to adapt. Those who didn’t, pretty much disappeared either completely or got relegated to some irrelevant niche.
Meanwhile, those who were early to realize the potential of this two-way conversation built engagement early, build communities and tribes and and ended up bypassing their larger, bigger-pocketed competitors.
Full Circle: The Insurgents became establishment and then were toppled by the next insurgency. Yet, trouble was brewing once more.
Level 4 — Proof or it Didn’t Happen
Soon enough brands realized that conversations on the internet are actually asymmetric and can actually be manipulated. They figured out how to work the system. They started manufacturing narratives. They figured out how to manipulate emotions at scale.
Enter “Fake News”.
This, in turn lead to people evolving a healthy suspicion of narratives of all sorts. A distrust of traditional media, authority institutions and big brands. This has been a particularly significant shift when it comes to sustainability narratives.
Companies used to have a little feel-good narrative ready for any occasion, and keep on with their business.
It’s a new era now. Now, brands need to prove their claims. You care about your community? Prove it. You have a responsible waste management system? Prove it. Is your supply chain clean? Prove it.
What does all of this mean for the present day insurgents?
Mostly, it is great news. Just like previously, the evolution of the trust economy from narrative to proof has been happening pretty slowly at first, and then will accelerate very rapidly — over night, essentially.
Most incumbents — arrogant and deeply confident of the power of their manufactured narrative Voodoo — will fail to adapt. As ever, many of these incumbents will lose out or disappear entirely.
This is how it happened every single time when the rules shifted, and it will be exactly the same this time around.
To make things more complicated, this time the process is further complicated by a once-in generations global Pandemic followed by a deep economic crisis and profound social change. Everything will be accelerated and the rift will be deeper than ever. Those who have a lot to lose will fight the change, and they’ll double down on their Facebook spending and their algo-boosting Voodoo. It will be pointless.
Once more, the times favor the insurgent.
Smart, modern businesses understand this. They understand that baking proof and evidence into their narratives and storytelling is a big differentiator now and will soon be a minimum requirement.
The march of the changemaker generation into the mainstream as consumers, investors and policymakers is being accelerated.
As far as I am concerned, good riddance to the narrative-manufacturing, fake -news peddling, mass manipulation crowd.
I can’t wait for evidence and data to take over. If you look with the right kind of eyes, you will see that a new era of trust — backed by proof — is already here.
It is just unevenly distributed.
I build businesses that create value for the world.