In brands we trust? Why blind confidence in big business is suddenly being questioned

Almost anything can be shared now. Our homes, cars, even pets. It’s called the sharing economy. And, for the most part, there are thousands of daily transactions that pass without a glitch. But for many it raises questions around who you should trust and why...

You are reading an article from the Understanding the sharing economy series, to read more about this you can visit the series homepage.

Airbnb say that major incidents, like vandalism, are very rare. In 2011, they issued a statement referring to an apartment that got trashed in San Francisco, saying “it’s our first major incident in over two million nights”. And, in 2013 they managed six million guests and paid out only 700 insurance claims to hosts. 

It seems that the risks are low, however trust is one of the most searched subjects when it comes to the sharing economy. You could argue most people are generally trusting, but the sharing economy demands a different type of trust. One that’s more personal. We trust our friends and family (sometimes). Most of us also trust the society or community around us. But trust between strangers is different. It requires the flexing of a trust-muscle that hasn’t been exercised in a while. Not since pre Industrial Revolution times, when people lived in small communities, have we had to trust an actual person. Someone who isn’t an operative for a corporation and without all the regulations, laws and assurances that have built up to mitigate risk. Over the past 150 years we’ve seen a gradual decline in trust between individuals towards a much greater trust in organisations and institutions.

Big companies ask the question: “what happens when things go wrong?”. They’ve been seeding that thought for generations.

The same is true for big corporations. From the baby boomers onwards, we’ve come to rely on big being better. We’ve lazily adopted a “you-know-what-you’re-getting” attitude. Trust in the ‘XL’ because the ‘S’ is unreliable and it will let you down. A thought best summed up in the 1980s advertising statement, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It’s one of the most powerful marketing phrase ever created. And, it’s no surprise that ‘trust’ is one of the most popular brand values for big corporations. It’s “In Brands We Trust”.

Big companies also asks the question, “what happens when things go wrong?”. They’ve been seeding that thought for generations. We’re also pretty good at knowing how to deal with a situation when big gets it wrong. 

We can have massive tantrums, (thinking of those airport-type documentaries), safe in the knowledge that ‘it’s not personal’. The person on the other side of the counter is ‘just doing their job’, they’ve been trained to be sympathetic and there’s relatively low risk of being punched. But, when an individual gets it wrong, we’re not so good at dealing with it. Think of the dreaded moment the hairdresser shows you the back of your head in the mirror. “I love it”, we say unreservedly.

You’re probably thinking this is all leading to some full circle conclusion that the sharing economy is going to restore our faith in people again. That we will go back to a simpler, more social way of transacting. A sort of online/feudal hybrid world. Another possible alternative is that people will start to act and behave more like corporations.

Many of us are already building online reputation profiles through sites like eBay, TripAdvisor, Linkedin and Airbnb. If these start to get amalgamated and centralised, we’ll be able to see each other’s overall trustworthiness. Don’t panic, I’m sure there’s a human rights law to prevent it happening (maybe). But let’s indulge the thought. What if our online rating starts to govern the way we behave? Influencing the things we say and do. Maybe we’ll turn into versions of restaurant staff that smile whilst somehow managing to remain expressionless. We’ll become ‘100% positive’ droids.

The premium taxi service, Uber, has seen drivers concerned about picking up a couple of bad reviews, falling below the acceptable rating threshold and getting fired. Some drivers go to greater and greater lengths to please their passengers, bending over backwards to open doors, play soothing music and offer complimentary bottles of chilled water.

There’s a human cost at the heart of the sharing economy that we haven’t begun to get our heads around. What happens if you get an unfair review? What if competitors try to trash your rating, as has happened with TripAdvisor? What if the problem has been resolved in the real world, but still lingers in the online one?

When businesses get it wrong, we know what to do. We know our rights. We feel largely protected, especially when dealing with high value transactions.

That’s what happened to Mario Costeja Gonzalez. When you Google searched his name it kept bringing up a link to an unpaid debt 16 years ago. The problem was long since settled, but the Google search didn’t go away. He took action this year through the European Court. He won. Google lost.  The European Union is now considering a formal, ‘right to be forgotten’ law.

When it comes to trust, what seems certain is that we’re unlikely to give it blindly. The sharing economy is exactly what it says. It’s enables people to share stuff. There’s no suggestion in the name that it’s a gentler, more socially sensitive model. Pioneers talk about the democratising, socio-economic aspects of the sharing economy, but as it grows, there’s no guarantee it’ll be fairer or any more ethical. It’s an alternative to transacting with organisations and corporates. But we’re not ready to give up on the level of trust and assurances that have built up over the years.

When businesses get it wrong, we know what to do. We know our rights. We feel largely protected, especially when dealing with high value transactions. The sharing economy isn’t going to grow by asking consumers not worry about these things. It isn’t good enough to say that the risks are low and people are generally trustworthy. As the sharing economy grows it will build its own set of protections and assurances that will work equally as well as in traditional business. Rights unaltered. Rights protected. The consequence might mean more scrutiny of the individuals involved. Rating and testimonials will abound. And as I mentioned in the case of the Uber guy, above, it raises new moral and ethical questions that could, if taken to an extreme, start to shape the way we behave and interact with the world at large. The sharing economy marks a shift towards individual’s empowerment, but it might come at the price of our liberty. Whatever happens, what we know for sure it that trust needs to be built on something.

-This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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