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Survival Of The Most Trusted
(what brands
can learn from dolphins)
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We trust what
sets us free
Animal welfare specialist Dr. Isabella Clegg, aka @thedolphindoctor, (full disclosure: my brilliant niece) can point to recent research which has proven that dolphins adjust their level of optimism or pessimism — yes, they have these feelings too — depending on the state of their environment. The better the environment, the more optimistic they are. The more optimistic they are, the more they are prepared to take risks and expand their social interactions. The worse the environment, the more they retreat and take fewer risks in their day to day life.

As you’d expect from something as smart as a dolphin, it’s a very pragmatic and sensible way to cope with life’s ups and downs. It also helps that dolphins are able to adjust their outlook fast. When a threat appears, they quickly re-evaluate who and what to trust and change their behaviour accordingly.

We humans find it harder to adjust our behaviour as efficiently when the conditions of our own environment change. As Greta has reminded us so often, our house is burning and yet we fail to act. Psychologist friends tell me it’s because we confuse acceptance of negative circumstances with failure. But the global, invisible, threat of Corona Virus has had us all re-evaluating who we trust. Our governments, medical experts, commentators, friends, colleagues and, yes, brands. For those fortunate enough not to have suffered loss or illness, lockdown has created a perfect environment for us to reflect and adjust our outlook on life.

A great realignment of ‘trust’ is underway, and brands need to pay very careful attention to this shift moving forwards. Because if the art of branding is about anything, it’s about trust.

Terms such as ‘influencer marketing’, ‘brand purpose’ and ‘brand activism’ have been swirling around the marketing community for years now, accompanied by passionate evangelists and incensed critics alike, all touting their ‘deeply held’ opinions on whichever platform or stage will have them.

These are certainly not matters of life or death, but perhaps, as football once was, they are even more important. Particularly to those experts we used to see popping corks, smashing glasses and generally toasting their own sense of vindication at industry award shows. Goodness, that feels like a lost world. Across the board the virus is mercilessly exposing some inconvenient realities that have hidden in plain sight for a good while now.

Stone throwing political leaders are responsible for most of the broken glass that surrounds us and the dramatic acceleration of deglobalisation looks like it’s going to be one of the major consequences of the pandemic. Some may wish that age-old borders would just reassert themselves so that we can be left safely in peace, but if the virus has taught us anything, it has demonstrated brutally how illusory — and not so age-old, or trustworthy — those borders really are.

And in this exposed world, it is simply not enough for brands to peddle what they ‘believe’, however earnestly that, often unremarkable, ‘belief’ is held. These supposed articles of faith, rarely inspire real trust for as Bill Bernbach said: “a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.” The same applies to brand purposes and belief statements, now more than ever.

Who doesn’t believe it’s right to support those on the front line? I don’t know if Health-Worker-Washing, the uglier cousin of Green-Washing and Rainbow-Washing, is a term yet, but there are plenty of examples of it out there already. Only humans, primates and seals can clap. Intangible things like brands just don’t have the hands.
Real trust is never blind, it is based on a clear-eyed, dolphin-like understanding of the realities that surround us.
From To Circles
It will be the brands that touch our hearts however, that set us free, that rescue us from our sense of isolation and powerlessness that will earn our tentative trust in this new, dramatically altered, environment. The Covid earthquake has made us all so much more conscious of our immediate surroundings. The local shop, supermarket, park, pet shop, pharmacy, etc. Then of course there are the brands that we engage with in the Covid-free environment online that connect us to the outside world: the familiar tech giants and the suddenly-familiar newcomers that make it so easy — Zoom et al.

There will be many others.

For them it will be important to remember that trust is not simply a rational conclusion to a set of circumstances. It’s not just an action that triggers when we agree with somebody or something. It runs much, much deeper than that. Genuine trust is a profound emotion that comes at a great premium these days. Do we even trust ourselves when we know so little about our own immediate futures?

But, and this is important, trust is not naïve and trust is not foolish. Trust is essential. We need it to feel secure and confident. Without it, we are a Catherine-wheel of neuroses, flailing around looking for certainty. And real trust is never blind, it is based on a clear-eyed, dolphin-like, understanding of the realities that surround us.

We trust what sets us free. And it is when we trust, and only then, that we feel that frisson of freedom which we humans can’t get enough of. That is what brands need to capture and convey in order to win back our trust.

At Saboteur we start every project asking two questions: ‘what does this brand/organisation want to be free from? And what does it want to be free to be, or do?’ It’s because freedom is so contagious that the answers to these questions provide the clues to how a brand can build a relationship of genuine trust with its audiences and consumers.
During times of threat all animals, and we are no exception, know better than to trust the world around them. In this menacing environment brands are going to have to work extra hard to earn our trust. There is no room for ‘selfish’ marketing these days. Brands need to be sensitive, dependable and, to some extent, selfless in order to inspire that sense of reciprocity they need to survive and grow.

And whilst the view today does look bleak, dolphins teach us that sometimes pessimism is a necessary outlook that inspires the behaviour required to survive. And ultimately, to recover and reclaim that underlying sense of optimism founded on a bedrock of trust. They proved this once before: 49 million years ago, dolphins abandoned the land and took to the sea, making the opposite journey to the one we were on.

The smartest guys in the room were leaving the party when we arrived, never a good sign and maybe we should have paid more attention.

Alex Clegg, The Dreaming Saboteur
Image by Charl van Rooy