After the Fail: How to Repair and Rebuild Trust

Content marketing is one of the best ways of building trusting customer relationships. But what happens when we don’t manage to deliver on our brand’s promise? Here’s how to recover and emerge stronger than ever.

As content marketing leaders we stand at the forefront of how people see our brand, our products, our values, and our messages of service. We make people feel something when we communicate with them and build credible stories that help them believe that our company can help them.

Our words (videos, images, podcasts, and even TikTok messages) have the power to do something incredible: build trust. But that content can also serve what is, perhaps, an even more important purpose: helping us repair trust after it’s been lost.

Trust starts in the mind but spreads to the heart

Trust “implies instinctive, unquestioning belief in and reliance upon something” (according to Dictionary.com, anyway). So, when customers or prospects trust our brand they are, essentially, putting their faith in us, in the belief that we will behave authentically and consistently. That’s partly why people respond dramatically when their trust is violated. No matter whether it might have been due to an unintentional mistake, or even a relatively small one, the emotional response that arises from shaking their faith can create a visceral response – one that can last a long, long time.

In marketing we trust?

Marketing, in general, has long suffered from a trust problem. An amusing illustration of this comes in the form of a HubSpot research survey. It ranked marketers nearly on the bottom of the heap with a trust ranking of 5% – we even got beaten by baristas, who scored 10%.

As content marketers, we share the burden of this label. However, we also have the opportunity (and the power) to flip this script and build or repair trust through the power of our content.

But with great power comes great responsibility. As I said in a previous CMI article, How to Stop Creating Content That Disappoints Your Audience, “The only way to get over that raised barrier – and regain the trust of buyers and prospects – is to give our audiences what they need, not what they think they want.”

Mistakes will be made …

What happens when we don’t do the right things by our customers – at least in their eyes? According to The Drum, “A 2019 survey of over 1,100 US adults conducted by Oracle in partnership with Jeanne Bliss … found that an overwhelming majority (82%) of consumers have had a disappointing or upsetting experience with a brand in the past, and over half that number (43%) say they blacklist brands that fail to meet their expectations.”

If we make a mistake that violates the trust our customers have in our brand value, it can be game over as far as they’re concerned. Fortunately, that damage might not be permanent – if we can address the fallout directly and effectively.

When #contentmarketers violate customer trust, it can be game over – unless we take action to address the fallout directly and effectively, says @GBalarin via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

As an apropos example, Pepsi pulled an ad in 2017 featuring Kendall Jenner that consumers said trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. At the time they listened to their consumers and removed the offending ad. Yet, the bitter memory still lingered.

However, when Pepsi’s misstep recently threatened to come back to haunt them, they finally took corrective action: In June 2020, Pepsico announced a $400 million-plus initiative to “do their part to help dismantle the systemic racial barriers that block social and economic progress for Black people in the USA.”

Their tweet declared, “Our past mistakes won’t stop our actions.” It’s a positive step in the right direction (though, perhaps, a bit too long delayed). And it’s one that other brands can learn as explained below.

… But all doesn’t have to be lost

When consumers lose their trust in us, many marketers (as well as their organizations) often don’t take the opportunity to regain it. Through guilt and fear they avoid speaking to the people they have offended and the issues that led to that breach.

But that just compounds the mistake – and, potentially, deepens its impact. For example, I’ve found that many enterprise-level software companies don’t like to admit when they make mistakes or set unrealistic expectations. But it often happens anyway, in the process of getting software projects up and running. This can disappoint customers and shake their faith in the company’s capabilities. While the broader public is not often made aware of these failures, content marketing can suffer as a result. After all, unhappy customers don’t provide us with testimonials or participate in our case studies. They’re less likely to give us referrals, speak at our events, let their name be used in our PR materials and social posts, or consent to placing their logo on our websites.

Repaired trust can make brand relationships more beautiful

However, when customers are given enough care and attention, and they see evidence in our content that we are committed to fixing their problems, it can make them more willing to give our brands another chance. Like a Japanese Kintsugi vase, when broken things are mended in a careful, thoughtful way, they can actually become more beautiful, unique, and enduring.

Over time, honoring our business promises and delivering results are how content marketing works to reset perceptions about our brand and opens up opportunities to rebuild lost trust. Further, it can actually drive greater loyalty, too. When our content declares our commitment to doing the right thing, acting consistently with our customers’ expectations, and delivering on the promises our brand makes, it can inspire our audience to feel more confident about making a purchase from us today – and persuade them to do so again in the future. (But only if our companies take the action our content promises.)

But it won’t necessarily happen overnight: The road to rebuilding trust requires both parties to be willing to stay the course. More importantly, it requires the guilty party to admit that they’ve done something wrong, show that they’re taking corrective actions, and communicate how they plan to do better in the future.

These are all areas where content marketing can play a critical role. Indeed, content teams must take the initiative to demonstrate how we are rebuilding trust. It’s not just the right thing to do, we also stand to benefit directly when better, stronger relationships emerge – by way of collecting and sharing the authentic stories that emerge when customers bring us back into their circle of trust.

The road to reparation

How do brands make amends after a trust fail? Skipp Prichard, author of The Post-Truth Business, says “Be authentic. Be transparent. Be trustworthy.” And then give it time. Here’s some guidance to help you do that:

  • Step 1: Apologize. While it’s not always possible for the content marketing team to directly influence a brand to issue an apology, our work can help surface that message in other ways (either internally or behind the scenes). When we can, it’s best to communicate in a tone of voice that our customers recognize, and to show humility, be honest, and be genuinely apologetic. For example, when PwC mistakenly presented the wrong envelope for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture, they acted quickly and publicly, keeping their message short and clear. They took ownership, apologized, and moved on.
  • Step 2: Listen and let audience needs guide you. When things have gone wrong, focus on your audience and how they were affected, not on your brand’s interests or your shareholder value. As you craft your response, consider how your customers might perceive it – or ask a few of them outright – to gauge whether it’s really what they will want or need to hear from your brand at that particular moment. For example, when a supply shortage caused KFC to run out of chicken, they took out a full-page ad in a London newspaper. It showed an empty bucket with the chain’s initials deliberately scrambled alongside an apology. It worked. They knew their audience and used the British public’s love of wordplay and self-deprecating humor to make people laugh at a time (pre-Brexit) when everyone was stressed. Their cheeky apology and explanation of what they were going to do differently didn’t just pacify their own customers, it even won them some reluctant fans.
  • Step 3: Don’t ignore your detractors. Don’t be afraid to listen to those who publicly call out or criticize your brand for making a mistake. Instead, use their comments as an opportunity to broaden your understanding of the best way to proceed. Skeptics don’t have that same emotional connection to your brand as your fans do, so they’ll likely be more honest and less biased. But be sure to balance their feedback with input from both inside and outside your company before you issue your content response. For example, when McDonald’s Brazil separated the M on its signature golden arches logo to indicate COVID-19 social distancing, they got a lot of flak. Perhaps if they’d canvassed opinion before they launched it – or thought about how their competitors might see it – they might not have had to walk back their response and rebuild their creative in reaction to an outraged audience.
  • Give it time. Once you’ve made amends, you need to stick to your promises and provide ongoing evidence of how you’re making reparations or improvements. It should go without saying, but be sure to keep records of your decisions, why you made them, and what you did to repair the damage – so your team doesn’t risk repeating the mistake in their future content initiatives.
How can brands make amends after a trust fail? Apologize, listen to feedback – from both fans and detractors – and respond thoughtfully. Then allow time for the damage to heal, says @GBalarin via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Do the work: Using content to retain or improve trust

As content marketers, we should do our best to prevent trust violations from happening in the first place. But when things do go wrong, we have an added responsibility to restore our customer relationships in an honest, respectful, and consistent way. Here are a few practical ways our content efforts can help reinforce and deepen trust at all times – not just after we’ve mucked something up:

  • Be consistent. Set realistic expectations. Everything – from our copy and calls to action to our social promotions, our content meta descriptions, and the content that appears on our landing pages can – and should – be crafted from a place of honesty. If we want to improve our reputations as marketers, we need to use appropriate language, stop overpromising, and be more honest about what we can (and can’t) deliver. If your content is average, calling it “amazing” on the landing page doesn’t make it so. It just disappoints the downloader and makes them less likely to trust any other content efforts you publish.
  • Show respect for your audience’s opinions – and their time. Being respectful can go a long way toward defusing a volatile situation and sometimes even help nip it in the bud. There’s no excuse for being rude, disrespectful, arrogant, or dismissive towards someone who points out an error or shares how they’ve been impacted by our brand in a negative way. Ever. It’s also important to respect people’s time. If your content promises something in the headline, you should enable them to find what they’re looking for easily just by skimming its headlines, subheads, graphics, or summary. Help them choose whether or not to spend time reading the whole thing.
  • Let customers’ voices do the convincing for you. Case studies and testimonials are incredibly powerful trust builders because they share an authentic and real-life experience that proves your brand is worth trusting. If you can’t get a full case study, get a blog post, or even just a single quote. Then share these stories across all of your marketing (with their permission, of course).

Our world is hurting right now; but through the power of our words, content marketers have a real potential to heal some of the pains that ail our customers and prospects – and address their root causes. If we choose to use that power to rebuild trust and be more helpful, more honest, and more accountable, perhaps marketers will earn the right to be ranked with the most trustworthy members of our society. I believe it is possible. And I believe it’s worth fighting for.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at CMI_info@informa.com.


Author: Gina Balarin

Gina Balarin isn’t just an inspirational TEDx and keynote speaker, storyteller and B2B marketing leader, she is an MCIM Chartered Marketer, with an master's of education in management communication and a member of the Professional Speaking Association. The author of The Secret Army: Leadership, Marketing and the Power of People, among numerous other texts, Gina’s goal is to magnify the impact of her clients’ influence through her expert guiding hand, visionary consultancy, and authentic storytelling prowess.


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