Bet on Behaviors: How lessons from your love life can help build brand trust


David Manshreck and Richard Bordenave, BVA Nudge Consulting

Recent years have seen brand trust fall to catastrophic lows. Stemming from the era of fake news and a slew of major brand scandals, well over half of the participants in a recent study think that companies don’t operate with their customers’ best interests in mind.

As companies clamor to counter these issues, inspiration can be taken from a familiar source: Our love lives. Although consumer trust and love between two people may seem like distant matters, lessons from behavioral science show that the principles translate seamlessly.

However, much like love, trust cannot simply be spoken into existence – it must be developed through an accumulation of behaviors. Behavioral science can therefore serve as a corporate trust guru, aiding to understand how to strategize one’s own corporate comportments to build a trusted brand.

Here are 5 pieces of advice to help your company with its trust life.

Create trust at first trust sight.

A stylish haircut, a classy aroma, a cheesy pickup line rehearsed in the bathroom mirror of a bar – these details matter to people because ‘love at first sight’ hinges on a good first impression. On Tinder, people take an average of three seconds to swipe right or left. Developing an impression of trust in brands can take even less time at a miniscule 1/20th of a second. But if developing love and trust is about a sum of behaviors over time, then why do first impressions matter so much?

This is because of the halo effect,which denotes that given a positive initial impression of something, people are more likely to attribute further favorable attributes to that same entity. Therefore, with a positive first impression, each of a brand’s subsequent behaviors is more likely to be perceived as more trustworthy, fueling an ongoing accumulation of brand trust.

Show you care.

If you hand-picked a bouquet of roses from a thorn bush for your crush, would you say you bought them at the local convenience store? Certainly not if you are a behavioral scientist who understands the labour illusion phenomenon. This concept posits that the demonstration of effort is far more important for gaining positive feedback than the actual level of effort that a task necessitates. Therefore, working hard on someone else’s behalf may be insufficient — it is necessary to show your work as well.

This idea is already being used by well-known brands to help secure consumer trust. At the ATMs of Spanish Bank BBVA, an animated graphic shows bills being carefully counted as customers wait to receive their cash.  When searching for a flight on, every plausible existing flight is displayed, showcasing to customers the exhaustive extent that they have gone to find the right fit.  

Be authentic.

Everyone fawns over Prince Charming until they find out he is arrogant, egotistical and downright unlikeable. He may have flowing locks and a chiseled jawline, but what kind of person calls themselves Prince Charming? His shortfalls are instructive for developing brand trust: perfection comes at a cost. No matter how immaculate something may seem, people are often seen as more likeable if they commit an error or display a shortcoming. This phenomenon is known in behavioral science as the Pratfall effect.

According to renowned Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini, brands can earn credibility by voluntarily mentioning their own weaknesses. Avis Car Rental famously used this approach with their slogan, “We’re only number 2, so we try harder.” Stella Artois promoted themselves as “Reassuringly expensive.”

Reciprocate trust.

What worse feeling is there than to love someone who doesn’t love you back? Perhaps a distant second would be trusting a brand that doesn’t return it to their customers. Both are unsustainable situations: Love and trust are both two-way streets, frail and vulnerable without mutual measures of loyalty and reciprocation. If companies expect people to trust their brand, they should demonstrate that they trust their customers as well.  

Homeowner Insurance company Lemonade has embraced these ideals, with the idea that customers will return the favour. In the insurance industry which inherently lacks trust, Lemonade demonstrates their faith in customers by paying out claims often and instantly, without interrogation about their validity. They also donate money left over to a charity of a customer’s choice, rather than keeping it for their own profit. This approach has been highly successful, as customers display a higher rate of honesty when reporting insurance claims, and even give money back when they believe they have been wrongfully rewarded.

Online retail giant Zappos similarly shows that trust is their default policy, as customers are permitted to order and return as many garments as they like with a 365-day free shipping return policy. This displays Zappos’ trust in customers not to abuse the system by ordering far more than they intend to buy.

Create surprises.

Routine can be the enemy of healthy relationships. Mundane repetitiveness is how passionate honeymooners descend into aloof companions, and how enthusiasm for brands deteriorates over time. This is largely a result of hedonic adaptation, where people become less allured by the same stimulus used repeatedly; and return to their original state of contentment regardless of how potent the first impression was.

To make customers trust in brands like in its honeymoon phase, spice things up and treat them to surprises. In behavioral science, the peak-and-end rule contends that people will rate experiences based on how they feel at its most memorable point (its peak), and at its end. For example, a great date night may be remembered only for the final goodnight kiss and a funny moment at dinner. Brands should aim to similarly capture stand-out moments at the peak and end of customer interactions to refresh the original spark, and with it the customer’s faith in a brand’s quality.

This is superbly demonstrated by The Magic Castle Hotel in Los Angeles, in Chip & Dan Heath’s book The Power of Moments. Negligibly differentiable from other hotels in its area, it focuses on small surprises in its customer’s experience that stand out. For example, it features a popsicle ‘helpline’ where an old-fashioned red phone allows a free silver-platter service of different popsicle flavours to be delivered personally. Despite its overall similarity with its competitors, minute details such as these have elevated Magic Castle with astronomical customer satisfaction, and reviews of impactful experiences.

Conclusion: Live your best trust life.

Though we may be inclined to consider brand trust as a distant concept from our love lives, behavioral science bridges the gap between the two. Benefits of doing so are substantial: Behavioral science permits trust in industries that tend to counter it, it helps differentiate businesses from their competitors, and it provides an overall framework for which to cumulatively build strong customer relationships. Trust is a continuous endeavor, making a brand’s ongoing behaviors crucial to solidifying it, and to avoid its loss. To counter current times of turbulence for worldwide brand trust, our love lives provide a reference from which we all have experience to draw from. In doing so, customers and brands can live happily ever after and enjoy their best trust lives together.

Related: Nudge, Dark Nudges, Sludge and Dealing with the Ethics of BE

How can behavioral science and nudge help your brand with consumer trust? Contact us to learn more.