A truism of customer loyalty is that fixing a problem generates greater positive word-of-mouth than never having the problem at all.

And loyal customers are the holy grail in a marketing environment where the most effective salesperson for your product is the trusted friend who refers others to you.

So how do you create trust? Evidently, if the truism is in fact true, by somehow turning your imperfections into moments of truth. And that is no small feat, especially for marketers whose careers have been built on a fundamentally different paradigm.

cracked green sidewalk

Historically, brand building has been about desirability and perfection. Let’s do a quick walk-through of the history of branding:

  • An actual brand – Evidence shows that people used dye to mark animals as far back as the Stone Age and that we’ve been laying claim to things ever since.
  • “Trademark advertising” – The Trade Marks Registration Act of 1875 ushered in the modern era of branding, led by none other than J. Walter Thompson, who is credited with coining the term “trademark advertising” in 1901.
  • Brand management – The post-war era of television advertising brought with it the idea of giving personality and character to a brand.
  • Integrated branding – In the 1980s, it became imperative for brands to establish a consistent brand and message no matter where they showed up.
  • Emotional branding – This evolutionary step was all about tapping sensory response and highlighting storytelling.
  • Experience branding – With the turn of the latest century came the sense that every moment of exposure to a brand is best if strategically engineered. Beyond just events, marketers created experiences out of everything, including products, packaging, employee recruitment and onboarding.

With each of these evolutions comes increasing pressure for brands to be superhuman. Today, their very essence is nearly utopian. Among other well-meaning intentions, brands promise to serve, elevate, create, promote and alleviate. They do it with attributes that range from earnest to witty, from serious to hilarious. They are smart, collaborative, steadfast and caring. Brands are based on values that predictably include honesty, integrity and a commitment to community. In other words, they’re like the version of myself my dog thinks I am.

But people are not dogs, and brand marketers are not fooling them anymore.

Enter the new age of “human” brands.

To be sure, no one is suggesting that brands strive to be like bad neighbors (noisy, disrespectful and junky). The brand that’s called for today has more dimension than the brands of yore. It is more dialogue-oriented, it is open and, as such, more vulnerable. It can admit its shortcomings while still standing proudly in its accomplishments. It is ambitious and, at times, conflicted. It is imperfect. It is like you and me.

And, notably, it is like someone we’d trust.

Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust, identifies 13 behaviors that engender trust:

  1. Talk straight.
  2. Demonstrate respect.
  3. Create transparency.
  4. Right wrongs.
  5. Show loyalty.
  6. Deliver results.
  7. Be better.
  8. Confront reality.
  9. Clarify expectations.
  10. Practice accountability.
  11. Listen first.
  12. Keep commitments.
  13. Trust others.

Note that this list says nothing about being perfect.

As a matter of fact, I’m struck by how many items on this list are core tenets of corporate responsibility. Inside nearly every organization today, a team of pros is identifying, assessing and reporting on activities such as environmental sustainability, corporate governance, diversity and inclusion, privacy and ethics, volunteerism and philanthropy.

The best ones ask for the perspective of those affected (2, 5 and 11), disclose activities without spin (1, 3 and 10), set goals (7 and 9), make commitments (6, 10 and 12), admit when they fall short (1 and 8), create partnerships (13) and don’t let the sins of the past get in the way of creating a better future (4 and 7).

Given that Covey’s work was not about companies or brands but about people and their relationships, the opportunity is clear: Companies that want to engender trust with employees, customers and investors will do well to behave like people who want trusting relationships in their lives.

And the best part? There’s a clear line of sight to fast-tracking your effort. Sit down with your CSR team. Listen hard and learn what they have to say. Make a place for them on your marketing council. They can be an experienced and trusted guide in helping you successfully be vulnerable and strong at the same time.