Honesty, integrity, trust, respect and probably customer service. Ask any corporate company what their “company values” are and you’ll almost certainly get this list (assuming the person you ask even knows). It’s so generic as to be useless, and certainly does not guide the behaviour or attitudes of the staff on a day-by-day basis. Of these values, “trust” is the most difficult to define. What does it mean to trust someone? Is trust earned, or do you choose to trust? These are not questions that will be discussed in the halls of many big companies. Yet, this elusive issue of “trust” continually raises its head.

Reader's Digest Most Trusted Brand surveyFor example, every year the Reader’s Digest polls it’s subscriber base to find out the “most trusted brands in Europe”. Whilst historically a UK based survey, it is trying hard to grow into Europe. Details can be found at their website here.

I am not a fan of these types of surveys. Best Company to work for, Best company to start a career, Best company to… – they all start out well, and then quickly become victims of their own success. Most of them require companies to subscribe to participate, most are run on a for-profit basis, and most have spurious sources (I have been part of roadshows that go from office to office announcing pay increases with big razzmatazz events, top class speakers and cash prizes, timed perfectly the day before questionnaires are distributed to staff – and, I promise you, I am not making that up!).

This survey of “trusted brands” has not just Reader’s Digest readers as it’s data base, but Reader’s Digest subscribers. Well, that will be representative of the general population, won’t it? On their website, they carefully explain how they weight their data sample to “accurately reflect the general population”. I am not going to argue, but an eyebrow is raised.

A bigger eyebrow is probably around the definition of “trust”. Again, their website provides detailed explanations of what they mean by this illusive concept. But, for me, as with many of these types of “empirical” studies, the proof is in the eating. Whatever the data says, does the end result make instinctive sense and does it explain some part of reality.

In a year when British Airways took over Terminal 5, and then proceeded to lose literally hundreds of thousands of passenger’s bags, and continue the decline in on-time schedules, the fact that they top the list of most trusted airline brands (and were number 5 overall) must surely indicate that there is a problem somewhere.

There does not seem to be an overall list of the Most Trusted Brands – they list only category winners by country. MarketingWeek produced this helpful summary:

Most trusted brands summary

Here’s where my problem lies.

Google and Microsoft were number 1 and 2. What do we trust Microsoft for? To ensure that our computers freeze, just when that important document absolutely, positively must be finished and sent tonight?

The next on the list included BMW, Mercedes and Royal Dalton. How do we determine trust here? I suppose it’s true – I can’t remember when last my aunt’s gravy boat or tea service let me down.

The Royal Albert Hall came in at number 26. How do trust or not trust a Victorian building.

Marks and Spencer (17) were beaten by Lego (15). What do we trust Lego for? And Jacob’s Cream Crackers are only just less trusted than the New Scientist magazine. And Maltesers came in last. Well, I suppose you just can’t trust a round chocolate ball with a fickle honeycomb middle.

In my mind, this poll is simply one exhibit in a long line of awful misuses of the concept of trust in the corporate world.

It is important, but not like this.

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