How to Build Trust: Investing in The Brand of You

August 14th, 2020

We’ve had the fourth industrial revolution, and the passion economy, and the attention economy.

All of them are valid.

But something that’s perhaps as important as any of those, something that has always been important and is no less important now, is the trust economy.

Trust is a vague, indefinable thing.

If we have it, almost anything is possible.

If other people place their trust in us, and just as importantly if we trust fully in ourselves, the ceiling that presses down upon us is lifted, and we begin to see the world in a whole new light.

But while we might all agree on how important it is, how do you build it, cultivate it, nurture it, or even get it in the first place?

Where do you start with something as silent and invisible as trust?

The Know / Like / Trust Framework

It’s a common device.

In order to do business with you — and let’s take “doing business” broadly here, so we can include all friendships and all relationships too — the old wisdom is that people first need to know, like and trust you.

It’s a three-step process.

First, because they don’t know you, they’ve got no idea who you are, what you’re about, or what you stand for.

Then, one day, (step 1), they do. Whether it’s through a random conversation, an introduction by a mutual acquaintance, or just returning your slow second serve at the tennis club, they get to know you a little.

Next, if you’re lucky, they approve of you, whether that’s an unconscious decision or not (and to be clear, this decision, like most of our decisions, is almost always an unconscious one). That approval marks the move to step 2: they like you.

Over a little time, because time is a force multiplier here, perhaps things progress smoothly enough and from not knowing you (step 0), to knowing you (step 1), to liking you (step 2), then there’s a chance things might progress up to the apex of the pyramid: they trust you (step 3).

Frameworks like these are often useful.

Like stories, frameworks help us make sense of things that previously looked like a mass of confusion, and making sense out of confusion is a key part of the human experience of the world.

But the know-like-trust framework, like all frameworks that involve humans, is by necessity simplistic.

Where people are involved, we need always to take into account the endless combination of competing desires, biases, moods and emotions of everyone involved.

And each stage of the know-like-trust framework is a fragile place to be.

Firstly, all of us are fickle, beholden to jetpacks of hormones and moods and opinions and influences, from inside our own bodies and minds, and from the thoughts of others that are projected incessantly into the world through conversations and media and online social networks. So someone who likes you today might like you less, or not like you at all, next week, and it might have very little to do with you. 

Secondly, even a little distance or absence from either party can result in everything being pared back or dissolving entirely. 

People might get to know you, and then get to like you, but if for some reason you or they are absent or otherwise occupied for a while, they might feel like they no longer know you so well at all, and the dissolution of the know factor causes an instant dissolution of the like factor too. 

And that’s when you and they are still in the realm of know and like, even before you get to the altogether more complex factor of trust.

What is trust?

Stéphane Hamel is a techie, data-oriented, digital privacy professional guy who I corresponded with recently on the topic of measuring trust in business. 

Our email conversation prompted him to write a short article, under the title “Can we measure trust?”

His focus was very much on trust in business, as opposed to the common-or-garden-but-not-so-very-different variety of trust among people. 

Stéphane is plugged into the topic of trust in business at a deep level — the tagline of his consulting business is:

All the world is made of faith, and trust, and privacy dust

but his philosophical comments about trust are relevant here.

He wrote:

  • Trust, like love, is hard to describe, but it’s easy to know when it’s lost.
  • Trust, like engagement, is hard to describe because it varies so much depending on your personal values, culture, life events and such.
  • Trust is a quality, not a quantity.

The two key things that jump out here are: trust is hard to describe, and trust is unquantifiable.

There’s an old Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi”, about the creeping intrusion of commercialism on the natural world.

You probably know it. The recurring refrain goes like this:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

Trust is like this. 

We don’t really know it when we have it, but it might be obvious enough when it’s gone.

How to build trust: The role of branding

Generally I try to steer clear of pithy quotes.

Songs and poems and essays and books — and increasingly, it can be argued, tweets — are creative forms where words are consciously set down in a particular order and rhythm by a writer.

So I’ve got no problem quoting from those forms of art. 

But the Internet is awash with quotes, with a nice font on a nice background of seas or sands or forests, often with scant regard for whether there’s a reliable source for said quote. [A number of successful businesses and valuable public service initiatives have grown out of the need to check the source of quotes and other facts.]

So I hesitantly put forward a famous quote attributed to Warren Buffett, the veteran investor.

He once said,

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

A good brand is an established positive reputation. And an established positive reputation is an essential ingredient in trust.

This is why branding is so important in business.

Branding is inextricably related to trust.

A positive brand is a brand that is trusted. When a company’s brand turns negative or even toxic, the first thing out the window is trust, and it can take massive investment, mass changes in personnel, and years, if not decades, for that trust to be rebuilt — if indeed it ever is.

Nike doesn’t buy ads just to encourage people to buy running shoes.

Nike instead creates powerful short films with the former NFL quarter-back Colin Kaepernick to create a feeling in anyone who watches it. 

That feeling creates the brand, and the brand creates the trust, and that trust is lodged deep in your psyche and deep in your gut, and it contributes in a major way to your decision when you set out to buy some trainers.

The same goes for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, or Purina, the pet food conglomerate, or Mattress Mick, the deliberately lo-fi Irish bedding company.

Branding is about much more than just advertising or marketing.

Branding is about shaping people’s perception.

Over time, branding builds trust, and trust builds business, and then business can reinvest more into branding, which builds more trust, which builds more business, and the virtuous cycle continues (once you’re careful to avoid spokes in the wheel).


But here’s where I’m going with this.

The brand-trust connection is not just for businesses.

It’s for all of us as individuals too.

Now, the advent of “me-centric” social media (“Guilty!”) has made personal branding into a pretty big deal in recent years, and even if you haven’t consciously thought about it, if you have any online footprint — and most of us have an extensive one, from Facebook profiles to Twitter accounts to Instagram and Pinterest and Quora and TripAdvisor and podcasts and a long list of other nice, free sites where your content and your information and your preferences and even your moods and vulnerabilities becomes the product that’s neatly packaged and resold to advertisers all over the world — then you have a personal brand.

But I’m not necessarily talking here about the active decision to build a personal brand. 

I’m talking instead about the brand of you in everyday life: The Brand of You that is present within your family, your circle of friends, your community, your company, your bank, your gym, your tennis club, or local bakery, hairdressers or café.

The Brand of You exists literally anywhere where people interact with you.

The Brand of You is what builds trust, or tears it down.

If The Brand of You is solid, your stock will rise.

If The Brand of You is porous, your stock will fall.

The Brand of You is essential, because it contributes greatly to your success in whatever it is you’re trying to achieve — as long as it involves other people. (And unless you’re living off the land in a tent halfway up a mountain, it always involves other people.)

How to invest in The Brand of You

This is the million-dollar/pound/euro question.

And first, let me be totally up front with you here. 

What I write here will change soon. As I hit “Publish” on this, I set myself a reminder three months into the future, and six months, and nine months, and indefinitely onward, to review, revise and update this section of this essay.

Because I confess to you now, I don’t have all the answers.

I know that whatever answers I come up with here, today, are very likely to be at least incomplete, or maybe even wrong, in the future.

So everything I write here will be up for review soon.

But here’s what I know about how you might invest in The Brand of You, as of today, in the middle of August 2020, when the world is still getting to grips with the coronavirus pandemic and what we all might do next.

1. Be mindful of your commitments, because your word is your sacred bond

People keep a Trust Ledger on promises kept, and promises broken.

The notion of the “little black book” isn’t so common anymore, so the Trust Ledger likely does not exist in written form.

But just because it’s not bound and stacked on a shelf in someone’s office doesn’t mean it’s any less real.

And all of us, no matter how conscientious we think we are, have some entries on both sides of the Trust Ledger.

Every time we say we will do something, and we do it, there is a silent, invisible entry on the plus side of the ledger.

And every time we say we will do something, and we don’t, it also goes in.

There are ledger entries for all of us, multiple times every day. 

They come from our spouse, our children, our colleagues or our postman (and everyone else besides).

We can never see the Trust Ledger. It’s not like a Credit Bureau check, where we can log in and pay a fee and receive it in the post. It’s not like a Freedom of Information request. 

But it’s enough to know that the Trust Ledger is there, and by our words and our actions, we are influencing what goes into it, every day of our lives.

2. Be true to your own deepest values

Of course, this assumes that you know what your own deepest values are.

Many of us don’t. I didn’t, until about three years ago (when I was already 39).

If we don’t know what they are, or we’re not sure, then that’s the place to start.

Your values are, simply, the intangible things that are most important to you.

The last time I engaged in a personal values exercise, I wrote down these seven values:

  • Self-expression
  • Integrity
  • Humility
  • Courage
  • Peace
  • Presence
  • Laughter

They’re still good for me for now. I may add some more in time. I may change or revise them too.

Everyone can do this for themselves.

Benjamin Franklin, for example, had 13 virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility. 

In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, his biographer Walter Isaacson described how he went about tracking his progress and pitfalls:

On the pages of a little notebook, he made a chart with seven red columns for the days of the week and thirteen rows labeled with his virtues. Infractions were marked with a black spot. The first week he focused on temperance, trying to keep that line clear while not worrying about the other lines. With that virtue strengthened, he could turn his attention to the next one, silence, hoping that the temperance line would stay clear as well. In the course of a year, he would complete the thirteen-week cycle four times.

“I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined,” he dryly noted.

The big step for most people is to determine exactly what their values are.

Their usefulness, once decided, can hardly be overstated.

Values are bright stars that light the way forward amidst the dark and the fog that can confuse so much of our decision-making. 

Values are the guiding principles that allow us to interrogate every possible significant decision in our life, work or business, safe in the knowledge that if any choice puts us in conflict with any of our values, then the decision is a straightforward one.

Once we are sure of our values, we are on a solid foundation for how we go about our day.

And when any situation arises, and our clear sense of our own deepest values leaves us sure of our next move, we can make that move with confidence, in the knowledge that this consistency and solidity will, over time, invisibly but powerfully build The Brand of You.

3. Do your own most important work first

It is easy, in this technological age, with a million choices and distractions before us as soon as we wake up each morning, to get sucked into the priorities of others.

Some might be unavoidable in the short-term: an urgent task that your boss is expecting to be completed by lunchtime.

But many are avoidable in the short-term, and all of them are avoidable in the long-term (including the urgent task for a boss — where, over time, we can either get rid of the urgency, or get rid of the boss).

It doesn’t matter what your present circumstances are, it’s always possible to carve out a short period of time for your own highest-priority items at the beginning of every day.

In the early days, that might mean setting the alarm for 15 minutes earlier (and that in turn might mean opting against one extra episode of that Netflix series before lights out…)

But we have an endless array of choices before us, and our most important choice is to determine our own highest priority, and commit to that before all else.

Jim Rohn, who some call the father of personal development (many of his old seminars are on YouTube, and all of them are worth a watch), talked a little about this, in his characteristically deadpan comic way.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan.
And guess what they have planned for you?
Not much.

Boiled down to its most essential elements, your own life plan becomes your own day plan.

All of us face the choice of doing our own most important work, or allowing time to pass and doing what other people have decided is their important work.

The beauty of this?

Our own most important work is 100% our own choice.

It can relate to our health, or our finances, or our skill sets, or creative projects we want to take part in, or any of a million other things we want to focus on.

It’s no-one else’s choice but yours, and you can choose to invest some of your precious time in your most important work before you invest any of it in someone else’s.

The compound factor of building The Brand of You

These small investments — which can start with a two-minute sliver of time just to breathe, unrushed, on your own terms — compound and compound over time into The Brand of You.

The Brand of You will generate the momentum for your own personal virtuous cycle, building the silent and invisible resource of trust every day as you go.

And perhaps the most important part of all of this?

You’ll begin, before long, to fully trust yourself.

And when that starts to happen, wonders are just around the corner.