The Story of the Cynic Turned Optimist

Joel Biswas24th Jun 2016

It’s no surprise to anyone that we live in distrustful times – an age where cynicism about businesses, institutions and governments abounds; a time when society’s default setting seems to be (un)healthy scepticism; and an era where our relationship with a variety of businesses and brands seems to exist on an emotional spectrum ranging only from bored indifference to white-hot indignation.

There are a lot of fairly obvious reasons for the lack of trust that seems so pervasive today – from on-going economic hardship and uncertainty to the large scale ethical failures of entire industries. Then there’s the reality of living in a world where the reputation of businesses and brands is mediated by the internet, a chaotic medium where transparency, people power and hyperbolic opinion rule the roost. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Edelman Trust Barometer paints a picture of a world the reputation of companies and brands is out of the hands of their marketing teams, reputation gurus and CEO’s – and increasingly in ours. This is major challenge for businesses because being trusted has never been a “soft” issue. It is the essential currency that gives your business a license to operate and ideally a license to lead. How trusted you are is a key determinant of your commercial potential. From public willingness to buy your products to your net promoter score to overall investor confidence in your business – all of these things are built on trust.

In a world where ratings aggregators like Yelp, Tripadvisor and Trustpilot now arbitrate trust for you, the gap between what companies say and what actually they do can be shared at the click of a mouse. So if Natwest is at pains to tell us about its dedication to customer-centric “helpful” banking and then pays out billions in PPI or British Gas promises to “look after our world” and then declares more record-breaking profits while its customers fall into fuel poverty, the gaping void where genuine trust ought to be is painfully apparent.

If the consumer landscape is bleak, then the picture is also troubling when we go inside companies themselves where there are clear signs of a malaise. Gallup for example, estimates that around the world, hundreds of millions of employees are unengaged in their jobs, while ORC International puts the UK 18th of 20 in terms of countries in the world with the lowest overall employee engagement. Could it be that a breakdown in trust is part of the issue?

Netflix certainly thinks so. Their employee manual introduces the company values by stating:

“Lots of companies have nice sounding values statements… the real company values as opposed to the nice sounding ones are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.”

It’s a powerful acknowledgment that the gap between what businesses espouse vs. their actual motives can be experienced inside of organisations as well as in the marketplace. It is something that far too few companies bother to acknowledge.

Based on this assessment, you’d think a strategy of total paranoia might be the most perceptive way to successfully navigate the trust-deficient capitalist jungle. And yet, the new and vibrant players of the “sharing economy” fly in the face of this grim picture, having sprung up seemingly overnight on the premise of total strangers transacting with each other – whether it’s Uber, AirBnB or So how do we explain this contradiction? It turns out that trust isn’t just the driving force of commerce; it’s a biological imperative. “Enlightened self-interest” is observable in our nearest primate cousins and today is the driving force behind some of capitalism’s most exciting innovations – precisely because it is so hard-wired into our brains.

Homo Sapiens are blessed with another evolutionary advantage that has enabled us to create trust on a grand scale since long before the advent of the internet or even the written word, for that matter. It turns out that storytelling is also in our DNA. Stories literally have a chemical effect on the brain of the listener, creating empathy and emotion that neatly transcend the rational. Stories promote trust because they are so wonderfully effective at creating meaning and indeed, that appears to be their biological purpose to begin with – enabling values, ideas and identity to be transmitted to larger and larger groups without the need for a prior relationship. In essence, stories remain the most powerful and ‘viral’ form of media.

So how then can you employ the techniques and science of stories to build trust with your customers and employees who are currently distrustful and disenchanted? The answer is to seize upon their your audience’s natural propensity to trust by simply telling a better story. Here are a few yarns to get you thinking.

Have a sense of mission

All great stories revolve around a mission and increasingly great companies do as well. Unilever’s stated mission is “to make sustainable living commonplace.” It is wildly ambitious. It bridges the gap between Unilever’s duty of care to its shareholders and its customers that is such a source of diminished trust for so many other businesses, making the normally turgid world of corporate ambition relevant and attractive to broader society. That mission is not only vocally championed by its CEO Paul Polman, but the company works tirelessly to hard-wire this mission through all aspects of the activities and its metrics.

The effect of a compelling sense of mission is not only is an opportunity for your business or brand to increase its scope of influence and differentiate itself, it also breeds confidence and trust both within and without the business. According to Deloitte, 73 percent of employees who say they work at a “purpose-driven” company are engaged, compared to just 23 percent of those who don’t, while 91 percent of leaders at purpose-driven companies felt their companies would strengthen or maintain their brand in the next 5-10 years, compared to just 49 percent of their counterparts. In short, a good mission sparks momentum.

Have a dramatic conflict

If necessity is the mother of invention, then dissatisfaction with the status quo can also be a driver of trust and engagement with the wider world. Take for example, Brewdog, Britain’s leading exponent of the craft beer revolution and one of the industry’s fastest growing businesses. On its website, it states its raison d’etre in no uncertain terms:

“The UK is a desert for progressive craft beer…. the landscape is dominated by monolithic lagers and generic boring ales. Drinkers have been seduced by the monolithic corporate brewers huge advertising budgets. Brain-washed by vindictive lies perpetrated with the veracity of pseudo-propaganda… We are on a mission to open as many people’s eyes as possible.”

Sound over-the-top? Perhaps, but the numbers speak for themselves. In less than a decade Brewdog has become Britain’s leading independent brewer with a stock valuation that’s currently 115 times earnings – trumping that of Heineken and Carlsberg by some distance.

Create a culture that can authentically live your story

A huge barrier to trust inside organisations are often the operating practices, policies and procedures in place that seem designed to protect the firm from its employees rather than empower them to lead. Take for example, corporate expense policies – pages and pages of mind-numbing detail (over one hundred pages in one leading UK bank) written by lawyers to protect the firm from the eventuality that employees will abuse expenses and damage the firm’s reputation in the process. Take then the example of McKinsey, arguably the world’s leading management consulting firm. Their expense policy boils down to a simple rule of thumb: “Don’t expense anything that you are not comfortable personally justifying to a client”. This gets so many things right. It is a principle over process that therefore shows trust in employee judgement and behavior while quietly re-affirming the firm’s commitment to its clients. Better still, it’s a great anecdote in and of itself that neatly illustrates what McKinsey’s culture is all about.

Communicate with humanity

Brands and companies that show real vulnerability in their communications naturally invite customers into a greater dialogue and move beyond the current paradigm of shiny promises, dashed expectations and hyperbolic online opinion that characterises so many brand relationships. Take, for example, Great Western Railway, a business in a sector that could hardly have a worse reputation in the UK. After flooding caused enormous disruptions on their routes in early 2015 at great inconvenience to customers, it responded with the “First Great Westerner” campaign featuring gritty portraits of real employees. This campaign served two purposes – restoring the battered morale of staff and showing the human face of the business. After all, it’s far easier to empathise with hardworking every people than it is with the stereotype of faceless management figures who only surface when caught in the spotlight of negative media coverage. Above all, this approach invites customers to consider the business and its activities in a more nuanced and sophisticated way, thus inviting a more genuine form of engagement.

Find and tell your own stories

Stories are powerful vehicle to win hearts and minds both inside and outside of a business. Just ask Stephen Denning, former head of the World Bank. In the 90s, his mission was to turn the World Bank into a knowledge network that could make a broader impact on developmental issues where it was present. But try as he might he was unable to persuade employees that the World Bank could make so much more of its footprint, talent and capabilities with strategy papers, statistics and logic. So he told employees a story:

“In June of 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and got the answer to a question about the treatment for malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it happened in a tiny place 600 kilometers from the capital city.

But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues, that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it.

Imagine if it were. Think what an organisation we could become.”

This anecdote travelled widely, unlocking the World Bank’s understanding of the role it could play. It reminded staff of the urgent human need at the heart of their endeavours and dramatised the cost of failure. With the organisation duly galvanised, the World Bank was able to make enormous progress on crucial developmental concerns such as malaria prevention. Stephen went on to become a fellow at the International Institute of Storytelling. He also authored ‘The Secret Language of Leadership’, arguing that storytelling is the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal. The lesson for any organisation, its spokespeople and brands is to studiously find and celebrate your own stories. Ultimately stories are at the heart of building trust. The can become living representations of your culture and your reputation that naturally resonate – in the media, in society, in the pub and last but not least on Yelp.

For more information on Aesop’s approach to brand storytelling and the problems we’ve helped solve, through narrative thinking, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.