How Can Business Leaders Restore Trust in the Age of Distrust?


Pass the Mic Podcast Series is an unscripted group discussion born out of AcornOak’s belief in the power of many voices.

Each episode begins with one question asked of a small group of 4 to 6 open-minded and passionate individuals who explore complex and difficult concepts with curiosity, uncertain beliefs, and the willingness to objectively listen and learn from the shared insights of others.

In our nineteenth episode, our guests discuss the topic of Brand Trust.


Starting the Conversation

As the podcast host, Virginie Glaenzer paved the way for this conversation led by John Hagel who explores the idea around what brands and leaders can do to cement trusting relationships with customers.


Welcoming Our Guests

We were honored to welcome our panel of special guests eager to discuss how business leaders can restore brand trust in an age of distrust.

John Hagel has 40 years’ experience in Silicon Valley as a management consultant, entrepreneur, author, and speaker. He has helped companies around the world to improve their performance by crafting creative business strategies that more effectively harness new generations of information technology and shape broader markets and industries. He also designs and implements change management strategies to help companies develop capabilities to drive more rapid performance improvement. Recently retired from Deloitte where he was the founder and chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte Center for the Edge, he is now running his own independent consulting company to help leaders anticipate the future and address significant emerging opportunities. John is also a faculty member at Singularity University where he gives frequent talks on the mounting performance pressure created by digital technology and promising approaches to help traditional companies make the transition from a linear to an exponential world. John is the author of The Power of Pull, published by Basic Books and summarizing research pursued at the Center for the Edge, making the case that we are struggling as individuals and institutions to adapt to a long-term shift in our business environment that changes the nature of competition. He is also the author of a series of earlier best-selling business books, Net Gain, published in 1997, Net Worth, Out of the Box and The Only Sustainable Edge.


Michelle Holliday is a consultant, facilitator and speaker, as well as author of the book, The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World. Her work centers around “thrivability” — a set of beliefs, intentions and practices based on a view of organizations as living systems. With this understanding, it becomes clear that we can - and must - create the fertile conditions for life to thrive at every level: for individuals, for organizations, for customers, community and biosphere. With a Master’s Degree in International Marketing and a Bachelor’s Degree in Russian Studies, Michelle spent the first part of her career in brand strategy, working internationally for Coca-Cola and H.J. Heinz. The second part of her career focused on employee engagement, consulting for a range of organizations in Washington, DC. More recently, as part of the global Art of Hosting community of practice, she has designed and hosted hundreds of conversations for clients and the public, from 5 to 500 people. Now, after living in 19 cities, including Moscow, London, Paris, New York and a small town in Scotland, she combines brand strategy, employee and citizen engagement, hosting and more in her home base of Montréal and around the world.


Dan Rockwell is listed in the “Top Fifty Leadership and Management Experst” and “Top 100 Great Leadership Speakers” by Inc Magazine and he is the author behind the Leadership Freak blog, which according to the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, is the most socially-shared leadership blog on the Internet. Dan started his career in the nonprofit world and has earned an MBA and undergraduate degrees in Theology, Pastoral Ministry, and Construction and Design. He owned two businesses and served fifteen years as a Workforce Development Consultant for a Penn State University Special Affiliate. In that capacity, he designed courses, hired and mentored instructors, and delivered hundreds of presentations for local, regional, and global organizations. Today, Dan coaches leaders, consults with organizations, and delivers corporate and community presentations.


Listen to the tour de table introduction of our participants.


Key Shared Insights & Perspectives

The forces reshaping the global economy are moving our business world of transactions to a business world of relationships.

In this new context, trust has become critical to building and sustaining those relationships.

For that reason, John Hagel stresses, “Trust is a topic that should be front and center for all business people.”

What is Really Behind Our Distrust of Brands?

Trust is eroding for our 20th century institutions, which have been overfocused on profits and minimizing costs to drive scalable efficiency.

When people face constant performance pressure with intensifying competition and accelerating change, anxiety kicks in. As a result, we lose our ability to trust.

When we promote individuals over groups in our institutions, the world is threatening and fear is the instinctive response.

Dan explains, as long as “our belief system prioritizes individuals versus community” and relies on authority and power, we are doomed to distrust each other - because we’re just in it for ourselves.

When we invest in building relationships and communities, the fear factor surrounding change decreases.

Also, in light of emerging societal values, trust is intimately linked to authenticity.

Customers are savvy and well-aware of self-serving corporate tactics such as extracting data for the sole benefit of the organization. Michelle adds that, due to our current misalignment, “Trust has to be intentional and explicit” to be restored.


How Can We Rebuild Brand Trust?

There is an urgency to address the lack of trust and this challenge represents opportunities for organizations ready to adapt.

One solution to rebuilding trust with consumers is through the expression of vulnerability.

A few years ago, Domino’s Pizza stepped outside the norm by publicly sharing their market research that showcased how much customers disliked their pizza(!).

While exploring what leaders and organizations can do to recreate a trusting relationship with customers, our discussion brought to life four key ideas.


1. Shifting from a Knowing Organization to a Learning Organization


Trust is fostered by organizations that display a learning capability inside and out. It starts with a strong leader who is able to ask the most powerful questions and open to the idea of not knowing. Those institutions will not only be the ones learning faster, but they will also be the ones adapting by building relationships with outside stakeholders and communities.


Listen to John and Dan explaining what this entails.


2. Finding New Ways to Measure


When the conversation turned to KPIs that are traditionally used for evaluating productivity and efficiency, our panel questioned using the same approach in efforts to change and learn and build community, pointing to the risk of collapsing the effort into something controlled, rather than emergent.

Instead of looking for new KPIs to evaluate relationships, trust, or learning capabilities, a different approach is to consider the question: What has to be true?

When we search for what has to be true for relationships to be supported and connected, it offers guidance rooted in the intention of thriving.By looking at the fertile conditions needed for everyone to make their best contribution, we bring great wisdom and inspiration.


Listen to Michelle sharing her experience guiding clients with this revealing question: What has to be true?



3. Moving From Brands’ Self-Serving Stories to Customers’ Narratives


When brands let go of their own stories and understand the power of their clients’ personal narratives, they uncover an opportunity to rebuild trust.

Most organizations are good at telling their stories by describing how they started and why or how they do what they do. However, few brands create an open environment that invites customers to embrace the brand by making their own narratives about opportunities that are meaningful to customers and helping their customers to see the actions they will need to take to address these opportunities.


Apple’s “Think Different” marketing campaign was a call-to-action to a whole generation using computers to express themselves.


Listen to John sharing his radical view of narratives as a brand call-to-action for people whom the brand seeks to attract.


4. Making Space for a Sense of Belonging


Finally, in the same way that knowing the formative story of people on our team is a way to create a connection and show respect to each other, brands have to let go of their own story to create space for the narrative that its customers would craft together.

Michelle shared her framework for brands to build trusted relationships. It starts with Contribution to the customers which focuses on features and benefits, followed by Community, Conversation and Co-Creation where we find a sense of identity and belonging.


Finally, for loyalty beyond reason, the brand must offer a Heroic Cause. Some of the most trusted brands are the ones that literally become part of their customers’ identity, like Harley Davidson.


Listen to Michelle as she shares more detail on her framework for fertile conditions.


Individual Take-Aways

As we came to the end of the hour, our group concluded the discussion in the same way we started, with a tour de table. Each participant had the opportunity to reflect on what they heard and share their take-aways from the conversation.


Listen to the last 10 minutes of the episode.


Final Thoughts to Consider


A growing number of surveys around the world highlight the continued erosion of trust in our major institutions. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that only 48% of the U.S. population trusts business as an institution.


This crisis in consumer trust directly impacts brands, which are one of the leading factors in consumers’ purchasing decisions. Why? Brand trust drives loyalty.

We ought to recognize that brand distrust has created emotional wounds and institutions will have to earn back the trust of their customers by showing vulnerability.

It might require brands to demonstrate their willingness through authentic actions and letting go of their control to allow customers to embrace a brand story, make it their own, and achieve a sense of belonging.


In the future, profits will depend more and more on creating thriving communities where individuals can also flourish.


Finally, for a brand to re-establish trust today, two distinct attributes are required:

  1. Competence - delivering on their promise

  2. Ethical behavior - doing the right thing to improve society

As marketers, we invite leaders and brand managers to rethink their clients’ customer relationships and focus on pull-based marketing strategies that promote trust and loyalty.


To dive deeper on some of our panel’s work, we recommend Michelle’s post on shifting from mission-statements to mission-questions as well as John’s articles on Business Models and Trust, and Re-building Trust in Institutions.


You can also rewatch our Pass the Mic episode on Ethical Leadership.

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