Trust in a pandemic

Sitting in a darkened theatre, in a pre-covid19 world viewers watched Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games: Catching Fire run into danger. In silence they filled the theatre atmosphere with carbon dioxide, acetone, and isoprene strong indicators, perhaps, of deep emotional responses that led to short, sharp breaths, tighter chests and increased stress hormone levels.

Sitting in ones and twos, virtually immobile and unable to vocalize their emotion, they nevertheless communicated with each other through exhaled gas and pheromones that were the direct response of heightened heartbeats and changes in their emotional state. In that situation individual theater goers were transformed into a virtual breathing organism with a collectively shared affective state.

Whether that state was truly the result of shared emotions that had been communicated through gases we exhale with each breath we take and volatile chemicals that are released through our skin is pure speculation right now. We simply haven’t got any studies that could give us some data to work with that could help us decide.

What we do have studies of however are the 532 volatile chemicals that are secreted through our skin and the 872 that are emitted through our breathing. We also have studies that show different cinema audiences emit the same chemical signatures at the same points in the same films, establishing a baseline of emotions that can be mined by simply analyzing the theater air.

The volatile chemicals present inside our body that can be secreted through a variety of means including breathing and through the skin are called, collectively, volatolome. They are the first analyzable, documented case we have that emotions are transmissible through non-verbal communication. This, makes them contagious.

Cognitive and Affective Trust

Trust is a complex, multi-factorial construct which has at its root strong pro-social behaviors. In other words, we engage in behaviors that make us trustworthy because pro-social behavior allows us to form the social binds, we need to work, live, and play better in social contexts. A 2015 study that looked at pro-social behavior in high-performing teams with high- and low-trust cultures found that teams with high-trust cultures outperformed their rivals despite the fact of being equal in terms of capabilities.

Interpersonal trust, the kind of trust that allows us to trust another human being is separated into distinct cognitive, rational and affective components. Briefly, cognitive trust is the decision to trust someone based upon the best current knowledge we have of them, rational trust is an expressed willingness to trust someone taking their own testimony on faith, affective trust is the confidence we place on an individual based upon their demonstrated behavior.

What this shows is that we trust people and organizations based upon ever-shifting calculations that take into account context and motivation to help us predict their behavior. Unpredictable actors consistently score low on trust. Which brings us to covid-19.

Covid-19 Affects Consumer Behavior

Covid-19 represents a potentially existential threat. As a result we have adapted by changing our behavior. Even in the short time this has happened it has affected how we shop, study, and date.

When human behavior changes individual health is the first element that is impacted. The second is trust. The two are related. Loneliness and isolation have an identifiable and measurable impact on the human mind and body. Not being able to intentionally touch another human being takes a psychological, emotional and physical tollSocial isolation and social distancing also affect us.

When human behavior is impacted perception changes and priorities are adjusted. This, in turn, changes consumer behavior.

Marketing In a New-trust Environment

The most basic definition of trust is the ability to understand someone else’s motivation so we can predict their behavior. When human behavior is forced to change, even in the short term, it changes the signals we use to process situations and determine the level of trust present and the trustworthiness of each actor in them.

This works in two distinct and deeply important ways: first, those being affected reassess their values. Google trends show that during the pandemic global search trends centered around five basic human needs:

  • Information from trusted sources.
  • Ways to ensure financial security.
  • Wellbeing, health and community.
  • Education.
  • Novel ways to spend down time.

These now supersede and may even permanently replace affective attitudes that traditionally drove consumer material consumption. Changing behavior is hard. That’s why it doesn’t happen very often. When it does happen however, it always delivers unexpected insights, benefits and opportunities. This means that there is no “going back to normal” because there is never a normal as such. In each case we do what we usually do because of circumstances and convenience.

Second, trust; as we have instinctively learnt to use it relies on a whole number of obvious and subliminal social and personal signals that are processed so it can take place. This, also, affects everybody. Businesses geared to employ emotional pressure-points as part of their marketing, in a pandemic, run the risk of appearing arrogant, out of touch, and insensitive.

Individuals, accustomed to quickly assessing trust in potential transactions now find signals hard to read much as they, themselves, send mixed signals now.

Just the donning of face masks, for instance, creates a challenge in identity curation and the establishment of trust in interpersonal relations. This, in turn has an impact on how trustworthiness is projected and how trust propagates and grows across social networks, both online and offline.

This is new territory. We are learning new behaviors that determine how trust is formed and how trustworthiness is perceived. The six new marketing rules at play go something like this:

  • Be open. Trustworthiness is predicated on credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. Trustworthy behavior requires transparency and a willingness to accept some vulnerability.
  • Be sensitive. Consider the context of your marketing messages. How they will be received, by whom. Context collapse does present potential issues. Sensitivity in approach helps disarm them in most cases.
  • Be detailed. If you are marketing in a pandemic (or indeed any other type of crisis situation) you need to explain, precisely, what it is you are offering, how and why and how that fits in with the context of the current crisis that is taking place.
  • Be human. The hardest thing of all. To be human in marketing is to admit a need. Admission of need is usually avoided because businesses do not want to appear weak or needy. Yet, marketing is the action of selling or promoting a product or service. There is need on both sides of that equation. The product or service fulfils a need for the consumer and it represent a need (i.e. to make sales) for the business. Presenting this in the right way and within context is where the new marketing skills lie.
  • Be valuable. In the current pandemic Google made Google Meet free to everyone. Adobe opened up its normally paid-for Creative Cloud service to students and Calendly opened up its scheduling service to stay-at-home workers.
  • Evolve. In a crisis nothing is “business as usual”. Seek to understand how everything around you is being affected and evolve with it to continue to be of value to your audience.

None of this is easy. A crisis is full of uncertainty and challenges, opportunities and threats. Uncertainty needs a cool head to overcome. Challenges need a plan. Opportunities require an open mind and threats demand awareness. Nothing is easy in a crisis. But it needn’t spell out the end of your business either.