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Kent Grayson, Associate Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management

Jul 13, 2023 by Michael McNerney, Publisher, Martech Record

In preparation for our Marketing, Content & Commerce event in New York on July 31st we sat down with Kent Grayson, Associate Professor, Marketing, Kellogg School of Management to talk about the components of trust. What he offers are some key takeaways for publishers and advertisers who are attempting to engagement with their brands. 

As a marketing professor at The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Kent Grayson sees a diverse range of students come through his required courses. The first challenge in his introductory marketing courses is to help students understand that marketing is not just a bunch of fluff – it goes well beyond creating a website and caring about font size and Pantone colors. That can be a part of marketing, he tells his students, but it comes at the end of the much more important marketing strategy process, which informs the company about which customers it should target and how to target them as profitably as possible.

But simply teaching and understanding the mechanics of marketing didn’t answer a question that Grayson has been fascinated with since he was working in advertising as a copywriter: How do companies persuade customers via advertising and other marketing communication?

It’s a question about trust, which has been the subject of his (and many other academics’) research. 

Grayson’s definition (which he says is largely synthesized from other researchers who tend to share similar views of trust and how it can be measured) is that trust is the willingness on somebody’s part to make themselves vulnerable to another person without 100% assurance that that person will live up to the obligations of any agreement that they have. 

Across most disciplines, Grayson said, researchers agree that there are three core building blocks of trust:

  1. Competence (ability to do the job)
  2. Honesty or integrity (telling the truth and keeping promises)
  3. Benevolence (the person being trusted has feeling toward the person giving trust)

You can measure trust by asking how competent, honest and benevolent do customers feel a brand is. But if that question is only asked after a crisis or breach of trust, then it’s impossible to tell how much trust was lost. 

“Every company is going to face a crisis of trust,” Grayson said. “It’s just the way of the world now, and if you're measuring satisfaction, it’s not that hard to also measure trust.”

The level of crisis, however, depends on the way in which a company violated its customers' trust because the three components of trust are differentially influential in customer’s decision-making, Grayson said. 

“If you violate customers’ perception of competence, if you do something to screw up, customers are very willing to forgive a breach of competence,” Grayson said, adding that the perception of a company’s competence doesn’t often get fully erased in such a crisis, particularly if the company is honest about the situation. 

“When it comes to benevolence and honestly, that’s when you can really suffer as a company,” he said. “If customers start to think that you’re not honest or if customers start to think that you don’t care about them and are willing to make money at their expense…it is hard to build [a sense of honesty and benevolence] back up.”

Though customers are never thinking about those three trust components separately, people are more willing to trust a brand or company that is highly benevolent, highly honest and moderately competent than they are to trust a brand or company that scores high on competence but low on benevolence or honesty. Despite a lack of trust, customers may however still use that company or brand because there’s little competition or high switching costs. 

Grayson said in industries with low trust, low benevolence or honesty, the key may be to create a company that can compete on trust and finds a segment of customers who care about that trust.

“Companies have to compete on something and companies can compete on trust,” he said.

Professor Grayson will be speaking at our upcoming event in NYC. To learn more and register for the event click here