A story: recently an engineering magazine editor told me that top-of-mind awareness is more important than ever because everyone is so short of time. What did he mean? When he was an engineer 20–30 years ago and needed to buy something, he explained, he’d put together a big spreadsheet listing the specs and features of 20 products. He and his colleagues would look at the matrix and select the product that best fit the application. Today, he said, there’s no time for that type of analysis; people just think, I need this — which two companies that make that come to mind? Purchase decisions are increasingly driven by top-level awareness, and you’d better be at the top of the list if you want your share of the business. We see that with some of our own research. When we ask customers to rank their methods of seeking information when buying products, colleague referrals typically top the list. We didn’t truly understand the context of that response until this editor’s comment put it in perspective – colleague referrals are likely driven by the same time pressures to which he referred.

What does this mean for branding and lead generation? If you think of conducting a Google search when researching a potential purchase, the role of strong brand awareness makes even more sense. The first page of results provides 10 links (more when you consider paid search, of course). Think of your personal habits – are you more likely to click on a link from a recognized company or one you’ve never heard of before? Most of us click on those we know and trust, and studies bear this out. Even in the antiseptic, graphics-free world of Google search rankings, the strength and impact of branding is clear.

Getting to the first page of a Google search, the focus for so many marketers, is certainly important. But the editor’s story reminds us that everything works better with a better brand. Are you one of the two top-of-mind companies in your industry?  Better yet, are you one of the two most TRUSTED brands in your segment?

In fact, trust is an interesting concept to explore. For any theme or message to be accepted, we can’t just say it; we have to SHOW it. We have to demonstrate innovation and flexibility, not just claim that we offer it. Building trust helps our message get through, at the expense of our competitors.

Frankly, trust has eroded in business today, and in society overall. The Edelman Trust Barometer even puts a number to it – 77% of consumers trust business less today than just a year ago. The past two years of economic struggle has broken the bonds of trust between companies and customers, and in many cases between companies and their employees. Trust in business is at an all-time low, driven by the financial scandals on Wall Street and foreclosure crisis that initiative the recession. Many joke that “bank” is a four-letter word, but the truth is that the public’s lack of faith in their bank has extended throughout corporate relationships. The Gulf oil spill, and the way BP handled its communications, further damaged trust in corporations.

Even the political arena has eroded trust. The clear effectiveness of negative campaigning has led to one commercial after another of negative messaging, to the point where Congress is one of the least-trusted institutions in America.

So what we have is a situation where:

  • I don’t believe my political leaders
  • I don’t believe my boss
  • I don’t believe my vendors
  • I don’t believe my customers

Tough environment to build a brand in, or to find and establish new relationships with customers. What it means is that the bar has been raised higher, and that we have to demonstrate that we’re trustworthy. Claims of product performance and corporate value are just that – claims – unless we can prove it. And once we can, our messages and programs will become far more compelling and persuasive. 

We have to go beyond lip service. That’s why social media, to take just one example, has captured the imagination of so many. It’s not that Twitter is truly a Tier 1 marketing strategy for corporations today; far from it. Instead, social media is a way to build personality, create connections and engage with our customers in ways we never could before. It’s a more powerful platform for building trust. It reduces the distance between the customer and the company.

Storytelling will become more important for demonstrating and building trust. First, adult learning takes place more effectively through storytelling. We remember stories, and we pass them on to others, making it a very effective tool for brand building and building internal cultures. But, more important, stories allow us to demonstrate that we’re trust-worthy, by telling stories of others who believe in us. Case histories become a key platform for marketing going forward, whether we name the company or not. 

In fact, when people are asked who they trust most, invariably other customers or peers are at the top of the list. Creating peer-to-peer interaction, as you’re working to do on your LinkedIn page and with the videos you’ve done of focus groups, can be very powerful for us going forward.

Honesty and authenticity will drive the more successful, trusted companies. We can’t just “memo” to get more trust or put it on a goals chart; we have to create a culture, message and environment that fosters trust with our customers. In doing so, we’ll drive more leads, create more opportunities, and drive prospects to our brand. Trust, in effect, brings people to the table, tips the scale in our favor, and drives the prospect to purchase. It’s the currency of business going forward.