We tend to talk about trust as if it is an incredibly difficult thing to earn, that people give it slowly, nervously, until making the decision to commit deeply. In fact, we’re hard-wired to trust. We couldn’t get through the day without the myriad heuristics that reduce our cognitive load and help us interpret the world.
At heart, brands help people make decisions. How? Because we trust them. Not in a conscious, emotionally active way, but in the way we trust the tensile strength of steel and so happily work away in the 20th floor of a skyscraper.
Trust is our belief that the world behaves in a consistent way. The strongest brands are those that behave consistently and gain our trust through our observation over time of what a brand does or stands for, and our belief that it will continue to do so.
Reducing decision fatigue.
We trust brands not because we think about them deeply but precisely because we don’t have to give them much thought at all. Our lizard brain loves that. So if a brand facilitates decision making through its consistent behavior, algorithms are looking pretty good. They can reduce, or even eliminate entirely, the need for decisions. That’s pretty killer right there. And they are consistent. That’s what they do.
But this is a very reductionist view of a brand. What about the emotional component? Let’s assume for a moment that we are as emotionally invested in brands as some of us would like to think. It’s fair to say that this emotion is bound up in second-order benefits: making us feel good about ourselves, our social status, or even the simple pleasure of a well-designed thing working well.
But there are plenty of algorithms that inspire emotional responses in people, too. People adore their Spotify playlist and, for better or worse, their Facebook feeds.
Building trust in algorithms.
Even Nest, which is basically a clever thermostat, inspires trust, because the algorithm goes beyond removing the need to make decisions about temperature, to promising to help you save money and be more environmentally friendly without you really needing to do anything. It makes you a better person. So, better at decisions, more consistent, and able to offer higher-order benefits.
For existing brands, algorithms are new, incredibly powerful routes to market, and services like Amazon Dash are priming consumers to trust them--when a user understands that they can just press a button to re-order, it's much easier move to full automation. Who needs the hassle of pressing a button at all?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, retailers and brands pooled their vast quantities of data to create category management as a discipline. This data-driven revolution meant that manufacturers could create more innovative products, and allowed retailers to grow entire categories, as well as category value.
Algorithms, as many point out, are made by humans to serve humans with all their human biases. Google recognized this with characteristic insight: "Brands are the solution, not the problem… Brands are how you sort out the cesspool." It’s time to reinvent category management for the digital age.
A version of this article originally appeared on Campaign.