Marketing that Fosters Trust: Strategies for Green Marketing and Beyond
By Kathleen Hosfeld
Few companies argue that fostering trust with customers and other stakeholders is an important business task. Where there’s disagreement, however, is what specifically fosters trust, and the degree to which trust between customers and companies – particularly as it relates to green or sustainability claims – is suffering.
Our academic partner, Jenny Mish, PhD., assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame, explored this and other questions in her doctoral research. Her study, which explored food standards and sustainability, resulted in insights about marketing behaviors that foster trust.
Mish interviewed a wide variety of individuals representing institutions engaged in developing or promoting the use of market-based product standards, such as Fair Trade or organic, that specify reductions in negative environmental or social impacts. She spoke with people in large corporations like McDonald’s, in government such as the United States Department of Agriculture, and smaller, grassroots organizations such as the Portland, OR-based Food Alliance.
The spectrum of types of trust she found span from the very impersonal and institutional, to the highly personal, local and dare we say “intimate.” Large corporations tend to look primarily at repeat purchase behavior to evaluate the degree of trust they’ve engendered with customers. Some companies evaluate trust on the basis of their ability to fulfill key expectations of sustainability performance. Still others evaluate trust on the basis of direct, personal interactions with customers, and the degree to which they had actual contact with customers and other stakeholders.
Her findings suggest that marketers may be able to foster trust three different ways:
Preserving the Integrity of the Brand: The least personal form of trust is embodied in the brand attributes that create a predictable customer experience. This is true even when the context is not sustainability or green attributes. This calls for organizational and channel alignment to fulfill brand promises consistently, which means full commitment to green or sustainability standards…not merely claims that show up in features and benefits.
Compliance with a Market-Based Standard: A company’s ability to merit certification such as the USDA’s organic standard or Fair Trade, creates a type of performance contract with customers that fosters trust. Marketers may encourage their organizations to qualify for certification, but ultimately this will require cross-functional collaboration to bring operations into compliance. Standards that inspire trust are those that are either objectively evaluated (by government or third-party) or that are developed and supported by a wide coalition of contributors/stakeholders.
Designing Highly Personal Forms of Contact with Customers: A company’s ability to deal directly and personally with its customers, such as “meet the farmer” programs, can foster the most personal type of trust. These programs are common in “local” exchange relationships, such as those formed at farmer’s markets.
One implication of the study, as I see it, is that human interactions (personal) are where trust can be lost altogether, or maintained in either an impersonal or highly personal and reciprocal manner. Mish’s study was not designed to explore trust as engendered by the sales process, but we know from other experience that the quality of those interactions also impact on consumer perceptions. While they make good marketing sense, authentic interpersonal relationships are usually not driven by marketing goals. They usually reflect a sense of “this is the right thing to do regardless” in the company culture, as is the case with local relationships described above. They manifest from the shared values of everyone in the company.
Ultimately fostering trust is not a matter of choosing between these forms. It’s bringing all types of trust-fostering practices to the marketing agenda. The assumption is that if the organization is large, then personal interaction is not possible. If we believe, however, that it’s the right thing to do, then it becomes an opportunity for innovation. There’s the marketing challenge — creating trust-engendering relationships between human beings on both sides of the exchange process, regardless of company size.
Jenny Mish’s dissertation is “Centralizing and Decentralizing Forces in the Development of Sustainable Markets: A study of Food Product Standards.” It was published in 2009, by the University of Utah.