We’ve been talking a lot about trust recently.
A couple of weeks ago, we hosted the writer and speaker Rachel Botsman, who treated a small group of Zone friends to a preview of her new book 'Who Can You Trust?'
The book argues that technology is driving a fundamental shift in the nature of trust. The era of institutional trust is coming to an end – we simply don’t trust governments, brands, banks, companies or charities the way that we used to.
But trust, Rachel suggests, is like energy. It can’t be created or destroyed – it merely takes on new forms. And technology is ushering in a new era, where institutional trust is being replaced by distributed trust.
We can use blockchain to create public ledgers, removing the need for central banks or regulatory bodies. We can book accommodation holiday using Airbnb, removing the need for a travel agent or a hotelier. We can buy and sell on Ebay, where buyers can rate sellers and sellers can rate buyers – building enough ‘trust’ to enable $20bn worth of transactions every year.
And, of course, we can use Uber to summon a car to take us wherever we want to go – something so commonplace that 3.5 million Londoners now routinely ignore everything we were taught as kids, and regularly get into a car with a complete stranger.
Trust is one of those words that always shows up in corporate mission statements and brand guidelines. No one ever wrote a strategy where ‘mistrust’ or ‘mendacity’ are part of the brand personality (although Ryanair seems to have come pretty close).
But Uber’s latest run-in with TfL illustrates how complex the idea of ‘trust’ really is. On the one hand, Uber is a textbook case of how corporate behaviour undermines customer trust. Allegations of misogyny, disdain for regulation, aggressive tax structures and a history of questionable ethics have made the company a lightening rod for all that’s wrong with the culture of Silicon Valley’s tech giants.
In a world where today’s millennial consumers are supposed to care deeply about the companies they buy from, that should make the brand toxic.
But the reaction among our team when news of the Uber’s impending suspension in London was quite the opposite. And it was young women who were Uber’s most vocal defenders, with trust being a word they used over-and-over again.
“I trust Uber's tracking more than mini cabs,” said one. “I trust Uber to let me fall asleep in the back of the car then gently wake me up when we arrive home,” added another. “G.U.T.T.E.D” was the conclusion of a third. Which raises an interesting question…
When we hail an Uber, who are we putting our trust in? Is it the driver – a complete stranger? Is it the company – a loss-making organisation that didn’t exist 10 years ago? Is it TfL – the regulator responsible for licensed taxi services in London?
Or is it the technology? And if we trust code more than we trust companies, what does that mean for the future of your business?