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The future is the trust economy

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Adriana Stan

Contributor

Adriana Stan is the public relations director of W magazine and a writer on media, culture and technology. She is also the co-founder of the Interesting People in Interesting Times event series and podcast.

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As we get into cars with complete strangers, sleep in the beds of people we’ve never met and lend money to others on the other side of the world, a powerful new currency is emerging — and it’s based on trust.

What’s striking about the shared economy is not the technology that has made it possible, but the vast changes it has triggered in society. It has brought a renewed sense of community, engendered more collaboration, sparked new thinking and put a premium on trust, tapping into a need that transcends boundaries and is still rife with opportunity.

If you’re not working to build and demonstrate it, then the future might be about to leave you behind, as trust is quickly becoming the global — and most-valued — currency of modern time.

The “codification” of trust

Trust was once an expensive pursuit. Banks were built from luxurious materials in bold architectural forms, with sturdy marble pillars and adornments to provide the most powerful declarations of solidity, tradition and trustworthiness — and to project a sense of enduring history. “You can trust us — look how much money we can spend on our buildings!”

Trust, more than anything, came from being purposefully wasteful.

Likewise, expensive educations from Ivy League schools represented not just a level of intellect or achievement, but an aura of excellence one can derive from investing in a trusted academic institution that came with a built-in reputation. It signified the social status and financial ability to spend more than necessary to be part of an elite group, and, like a stamp of approval, projected specific qualities to potential employers.

And think about the hospitality industry. Historically, hotels found success through standardization — guaranteeing a level of comfort and quality under an umbrella brand or chain, often built on emblems of safety, trust and tradition.

This has all changed. Today, we are prepared to place our lives in the hands of people we know nothing about. We’ve taken our most visceral fear of the unknown and cast it aside in a matter of months.

What’s empowered this shift in values is the codification of reputation — it’s the five stars next to people’s names that make it possible to trust someone we otherwise know nothing about. And it’s transforming the way we live: From riding in an UberX to staying in an Airbnb; from buying or selling handmade products on Etsy to peer-to-peer loans; from hiring someone on Upwork or TaskRabbit to booking home cleaners on Handy or renting a car on Turo.

Similarly, we’re seeing a codification of influence and status, the result of which is also trust. The recommendations you receive on LinkedIn and the connections you share with a potential employer can determine whether you get the job. And your Instagram presence — specifically, earning the “endorsement” of high-profile followers — determines your next date, if what you seek is a membership on Raya, a new dating app that prides itself on fostering an intimate community of celebrities and creative people.

Reputation is now carried by a new system, which takes rather elusive notions of credibility, influence and status and turns them into measurable scores. It’s “digitizing” relationships and social connections, extracting value and insights from our associations and both codifying and commodifying trust — signifying it and selling it.

Re-thinking branding around trust

PR, marketing and advertising campaigns have long looked to assert signs of quality, establish credibility and give buyers reasons to believe in them.

As consumers, we used to trust that a recognizable hotel brand must provide a great guest experience — otherwise, it wouldn’t have been able to build its name.

In fact, in the pre-digital age, the advertising that helped build brands was expensive, and that was key. Just as banks spent big money on marble columns, anything in TV commercials exuded an aura of quality, stemming from the feeling that advertising had a high production value and air time was limited.

Compare that to today’s decentralized and fragmented media landscape, and we see the challenges for brands. What becomes of brand-driven trust when we read news stories that our friends like and share with us, buy products because of reviews on Amazon and stay at hotels we find tagged on Instagram?

The very notion of branding is rapidly changing.

For a start, it is less physical. That’s what allowed the rise of bitcoin — it isn’t tied to physical assets like the gold standard; it’s the collective beliefs and hopes of its owners that make it so. Similarly, anyone can build an e-commerce site on Wix for $29, with an accompanying social feed that sells products under the guise of a carefully curated aspirational lifestyle.

The modern language of trust is a slick user interface, a decent booking flow and impactful images; above all, it’s great reviews, ratings and influence.

Will there be a single metric of trust?

Trust may soon be a commodity that consumers not only want from the brands with which they interact, but demand to know about other people. It won’t just be about customers reviewing brands, but our own personas being attached to a score or reputation; people themselves will be “measured.”

Everything from our influence, social following, work connections, credit worthiness and beyond, could make up the metric of trust. This may end up deciding who gets upgraded on a flight, who can buy products from us or who gets priority customer service.

In this new world, our “trust score” will be the only metric that people need in order to make decisions on how to do business, and with whom. It effectively becomes the new credit score. For someone with VC funding, the opportunity in the next year to find a single metric of trust is huge.

The question is what are you doing to actively build trust with your customers? In a world where your brand is less what you say and more the collective experiences of everyone using it, you can’t simply rely on marketing to meet the challenge for you in the future.

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