The Neuroscience of Brand Trust

Lawrence A. Crosby & Paul J. Zak
Marketing News
Current average rating    
5.00
Key Takeaways
  • Create well-constructed, compelling narratives that emphasize people’s struggles that the brand or company was able to help resolve.
  • While marketers have taken largely a social science approach to understanding the role of trust and applying those insights, neuroscientists have been studying trust from the standpoint of brain function and how that influences behavior
  • Building on previous animal studies of prosocial behavior, Zak and team discovered through blood sampling that the neurochemical oxytocin (OT) is synthesized in the human brain when one is trusted or simply treated well.

The important role of trust in building strong customer relationships has been widely discussed in marketing since the early 1990s. There are many working definitions of trust, but most revolve around the confident expectation of honest dealings, reliability, promise keeping and not being taken advantage of when vulnerable. Paper-and-pencil measures of trust indicate an emotional connection to the other party, but trust also can have a rational component.

Various models have been proposed and tested over the years (including one by my co-author of this column), which demonstrate a link between trust and customer loyalty and commitment, leading to higher levels of repurchase, share of wallet, cross-selling, referrals, general buyer-seller cooperation, etc. Various drivers of trust also have been identified, including (but not limited to) the frequency and quality of communication, source credibility and expertise, having similar characteristics and shared values, the absence of opportunistic behavior, mutual disclosure, the build-up of a consistent history of positive interactions, etc. These (presumably) causal linkages appear robust across many different B-to-C and B-to-B contexts, and seem to apply whether the objects of trust are people, firms or brands.

While marketers have taken largely a social science approach to understanding the role of trust and applying those insights, neuroscientists have been studying trust from the standpoint of brain function and how that influences behavior. Their findings are mostly in line with what marketers believe to be true about trust, but they offer a deeper level of explanation and validation. Moreover, they point to additional levers that marketers can use to build brand trust and engagement.

Laboratory work by my co-author, Paul Zak, and his colleagues at Claremont Graduate University has uncovered an apparent “switch” in the brain that can “turn on” trust. Building on previous animal studies of prosocial behavior, Zak and team discovered through blood sampling that the neurochemical oxytocin (OT) is synthesized in the human brain when one is trusted or simply treated well. The OT molecule, in turn, motivates reciprocation. The release of OT signals that the other party is “safe” to be around and that cooperative behavior will not be exploited. Similar to lab rodents, the synthesis of OT motivates people to treat the other party “like family.” Functional MRI has shown that infusing people with OT reduces fear-associated brain activity. A link to social science research is a positive correlation between the amount of OT released and expressed feelings of empathy toward the other party and “wanting to help.” OT appears to be the neurochemical that emotionally connects us to others by enhancing empathy, which is why it is sometimes called the “love hormone” (think brand love).​​​​​​​​​​​​

The following article is available exclusively to Marketing News Subscribers and Members.

     

Author Bio:

https://auth.ama.org/PublishingImages/Lawrence-A-Crosby.gif
Lawrence A. Crosby & Paul J. Zak
Lawrence A. Crosby is dean of the Peter F. Drucker-Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at the Claremont Graduate University, and PAUL J. ZAK is the founding director of the university’s Center for Neuroeconomics and a professor of behavioral economics. 

Become a Member
Access our innovative members-only resources and tools to further your marketing practice.