"I think technology is starting to lap us. It's exceeding our ability to even keep up with what's going on. It's very troubling for those of us who care about democracy. And I think it's a consequence of our turning technology into our culture, our primary religion, and turning to it as the one thing we all trust in blindly. The consequences of this manifest in our ability to trust each other and our inability of our old institutions to function the way we hoped they could."

The above is an excerpt from my interview of political journalist Murtaza Hussein of The Intercept in 2018, when I was writing Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World. Our conversation centered on the collapse of trust and the rise of technology as the world's most profound cultural driver.

It all felt very over-the-horizon at the time, but it was only two years before The Great Tilt of 2020.

Fast-forward to the immediate present, and Hussein's warning feels possibly too late. We've just come through a year in which we dealt, in quick succession, with COVID lockdowns, nationwide riots, the social media de-platforming of not only the president of the United States but also Twitter competitor Parler, and a US election unlike any in memory.

Brands have stumbled into this world thinking they were culture's standard bearers, yet straining under the perceived stress of having to "make a statement" on whichever outrage demanded the most attention at the moment.

But brands, too, have concerns of their own. 2021 is an amazingly complex time to be stewarding a brand.

Business is now the most trusted institution in our culture, the Edelman Trust Barometer suggests. That elevation of brands is interesting, but it must be tempered by the realization that only 54% of people in the US say they "trust business" as an institution. Its competitors—the media, the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—fare worse.

How we attempt the seemingly impossible task of winning back trust in a world that shows every sign of spinning out of control is what brands need to focus on right now.

So, how can you build customer trust in 2021?

Based on our interviews and the underpinning research in the Culture & Technology intersection study, my consultancy has identified three pillars for brands to home in on as they struggle with how to best build a culture of trust against a background of low trust and the increasing power of technology giants.

1. Put control back into the hands of your customers

We don't trust the institutions around us—and for good reason. We've caught "technopolies" using our data or collecting information without our knowledge or consent too many times to trust them. As recent events show us, it's likely to get worse.

How do we address that as stewards of our businesses?

Find ways to give our customers the control that we would traditionally keep to ourselves. From information on demand to self-service to rehumanizing what could easily become a technology-only relationship, the ways we give control back to our customers not only provide closure but also de-stress what can be a stressful experience.

2. Shift your perspective from being the hero to being 'raw'

Let's put ourselves into our customers' shoes for a moment: We're tired of being lied to. We don't trust post-production. We want the truth... And the easiest way to come across as truthful is to strip away the scripting, the production value, and the artifice.

How do we shift toward "raw?"

Lose the script and speak from the heart. Include your customers in the development of your plans so that they are codeveloping what many would assume would be passed down to them as complete.

Teach rather than lecture; act not as the hero but as a trusted adviser, explaining to your audience what they're seeing. Provide context instead of demanding compliance.

3. Align with your customers' values instead of trying to force them to align to yours

We may be in an environment where, overall, trust is low, but there's evidence that we're willing to follow the leadership of brave brands that are unquestionably credible on the issue at hand. Patagonia can lean on its environmental credentials with ease, but Dick's Sporting Goods' attempt to weigh in on the nuances of the Second Amendment cost them hundreds of millions in revenue.

So, what are we supposed to do?

Be willing to make big bets on connecting your brand to movements bigger than your product category—but make sure the origins of your advocacy are rooted deep in your brand's DNA.

Don't make the mistake of thinking you need to "make a statement" on every controversial issue; your customer base doesn't think you need to. Stay true to your brand's actual, observable, and ownable values.

And don't dismiss the idea of tapping into your customers' values: You don't always have to convince them to change their way of thinking. We're all tired of lectures, particularly when trust is low.

* * *

The holistic system of "seeking control in an out-of-control world" plus being "raw" plus owning "heroic credibility" gives us as business leaders a blueprint with which to build trust and credibility in a jaded, distracted world.

We're walking an uncertain, potentially treacherous path. The only way forward is to ensure our audience is with us every step of the way.

More Resources on How to Build Customer Trust in 2021

Do Customers Trust You? Six Tips for Earning Brand Trust in 2021

How to Win Customers' Trust and Loyalty With Unfiltered Marketing: Stephen Denny on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

Earn Your Customers' Trust: How to Use Personalization and Authenticity to Reach Audiences

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image of Stephen Denny

Stephen Denny is managing director at Denny Leinberger Strategy, which focuses on spotting business performance trends and giving clients the tools and insights to act on them so they can achieve real-world financial results. He is a co-author (with Paul Leinberger) of Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World.

LinkedIn: Stephen Denny

Twitter: @Note_to_CMO