How The 10 Most Trusted Corporate Brands Connect With Their Customers

ski thru starbucks barista

Photo: Matt Palmer / Squaw Valley

This post originally appeared at Entrepreneur.There’s no better way to dissect the how-tos of branding than to dig deep into the companies everybody knows and trusts. To accomplish this, Entrepreneur¬†teamed with The Values Institute at DGWB, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based think tank that focuses on brand relationships, on a consumer survey that explored the reasons some brands manage to stay on top.

What became clear: Though they may not have the biggest sales or market share in their categories, today’s most trustworthy brands have created relationships with consumers through experiences that trigger a visceral response.

“We’re seeing more of an emphasis on brands building emotional relationships with consumers because it’s powerful and it works,” says branding consultant Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble and author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies. “When you do it, you have a much stronger affinity, a much stronger business, much stronger growth and much stronger results.

“When we looked at brands [at P&G] that had a very, very strong emotional benefit vs. our competition,” Stengel adds, “our shares were much, much higher. And the margin of growth vs. our competitor was much higher than those that had just a functional superiority.”

Here, a look at the tactics used by America’s most trustworthy brands to connect with consumers–and ways you can put them to work for your business.

10. Focus on the customer: Nordstrom

When mythic stories circulate about your company's awesome customer service, you know you're doing something right. That's the hallmark of this upscale department store, which is rumoured to have once graciously accepted the return of a set of tires, even though the store has never sold tires.

'Nordstrom is all about the power of delivering exceptional customer service that goes above and beyond a typical service experience,' Northwestern's Calkins says.

Nordstrom scored strongly among respondents for concern for the customer, as well as for the quality of the products in its nearly 230 stores. Attentive service--which includes a liberal return policy, e-mailing digital photos of new items to regular customers and sending thank-you notes after purchases--frees the Seattle-based retailer from having to focus on competitive pricing, which helps keeps profit margins higher.

'They don't pretend to have the lowest prices, but they don't have to,' Calkins says. 'When people go there they know they may pay a little more, but the service is so good that it makes it worthwhile.'

Respondents criticised Nordstrom for not providing consumers with much information about its corporate decision-making policies, but Calkins contends that when building a brand identity, it's OK for your proposition to focus on one principal element, as long as you do it right.

'What makes this brand tick is the service experience, not the approach,' he says. 'Nordstrom has never focused on its company or its people; all of that positive energy is directed at the customer and the retail experience, and it's the secret to their success.'

9. Serve up the quirky: Southwest Airlines

8. Forge connections: Starbucks

After suffering a slump a few years back, the world's leading specialty coffee retailer has perked up its business and its brand by getting back to its original promise of bringing people together. 'Starbucks has gotten much more in touch with the reason they're here, and that's to help create connections,' author Stengel says.

From the free Wi-Fi to the in-store music to the large tables with room for groups and meetings, the company's stores are designed to help customers interact. 'Go into any Starbucks, and business is happening and people are sharing, and the company understands that,' Stengel says. 'Everything in there is about connection, discovery, inspiration and creation.'

Startups would do well to note the company's innovative approach, which has enabled it to set the agenda in a category that has been around for centuries. 'They carved out this dynamic niche with their brand and became very successful, and there's still nobody else like them,' Stengel says.

The key, he says, is to thoroughly understand category norms and competitors' strategies, and determine how to direct those toward your advantage. 'If you're an entrepreneur entering a category, maybe you can't set the agenda, but if you can redirect that agenda, that's how you win,' he says. 'If you're going to enter a category and be a 'me too,' don't bother.'

7. Can-do attitude: Nike

6. Stay consistent: Ford

In an era when the only thing that seems certain is change, Ford's consistent branding has established the company as a beacon of reliability.

The Blake Project's VanAuken points out that from its simple, one-syllable name to its iconic logo and emphasis on founding father Henry Ford, the company's brand identity stands the test of time.

'Everyone knows and admires the Ford story,' he says. 'Of the three Detroit-based automakers, Ford has the most consistent brand, product strategy and execution.'

Ford also listens to and acts on its customers' needs, VanAuken adds, noting that CEO Alan Mulally is actively involved in interacting with customers through social media.

Those attributes forge a strong connection: The brand ranked high for stability and dependability, and respondents gave it the strongest average ratings for concern, specifically for behaving responsibly and caring about the well-being of employees and customers. Several respondents cited Ford's refusal to take government bailout money as evidence of the company's integrity.

VanAuken emphasises that consistency needs to reach all corners of any business. 'Changing the logo, tag line and messaging on a frequent basis will ensure that nothing about your brand sticks in your intended customers' heads,' he says. 'Once you have developed a unique and compelling value proposition for your brand, repeat it again and again.'

5. Design an experience: Target

4. Keep it cool (and fun): Apple

What other company has the public and the press waiting breathlessly for each new product release? The bottom line is whatever that new Apple product is, consumers trust that it will be smart and sleek and that it will improve the way they communicate, work or spend their leisure time. What's more, they'll enjoy the experience of making the purchase.

While Apple has always been about creativity and expression, the brand has kicked up the emotional quotient by creating retail stores that foster a sense of collaboration and transparency between customers and sales staff. 'They hire empathetic people, and they don't measure their sales associates on sales,' Stengel says. He calls Apple's approach to its stores 'the best retail endeavour in history. They really want people to come in and be inspired, build confidence and really feel better about themselves from the experience they had in the store.'

Apple uses its retail outlets to show, not tell, consumers its brand philosophy, from the large tables, open spaces and walls of windows to its well-trained associates (Apple's biggest brand advocates), who are armed with handheld checkout scanners that enable shoppers to make purchases without having to stand in line.

Some sour bits: The brand got lower than average scores for a sense of connection to Apple's corporate side, as well as for the perception that the company doesn't value customers' business or reward them for their loyalty. Those sentiments may simply be the result of Apple focusing on its core functions.

'Steve Jobs just thought about what was right for the brand and the consumer,' Stengel says. 'That focus is part of the reason they've done such a good job of creating new categories and products that continue to distance themselves from their competitors.'

3. Live up to your promise: FedEx

With a straightforward passion for the task at hand, FedEx has created a strong corporate identity. Not surprisingly, the company received its strongest ratings in ability, specifically for being able to achieve what it promises and for the efficiency of its operations.

In addition to providing what is seen as a reliable service, the brand has engendered trust through initiatives such as its 'We Understand' campaign, says Kari Blanchard, senior director of strategy in the New York office of FutureBrand. 'They've elevated the brand by recognising that it's not just about the logistics of moving packages and boxes,' Blanchard says. 'They appreciate that it's people's treasures, livelihoods and futures, and that the contents of those packages mean a lot to people.'

To further deliver that message, FedEx engages with consumers through its personalised rewards program and by interacting on social media channels. 'When you've already nailed attributes like trustworthiness and reliability--things that are essential to the business but don't exactly make you fall in love with a brand--that's where thinking of your customer as a person and not just a number becomes crucial,' Blanchard says.

2. Sell happiness: Coca-Cola

1. Get personal: Amazon

The online retailer of, well, just about everything, ran away with the list, posting the highest scores not just in overall brand trust but in every individual trust value.

That's no surprise to Brad VanAuken, chief brand strategist for The Blake Project consultancy. He says Amazon's exceptional product accessibility, functionality and customer experience all converge to create a strong brand that consumers trust.

'With millions of products, 24/7 access, superior search and browse technology, user reviews and many other sources of in-depth product information, Amazon.com offers a superior purchase experience,' VanAuken says.

He adds that the brand--with its low prices and free shipping on orders over a minimum total--is seen as offering value, while its one-click ordering and quick-shipping options help shoppers save time. Consumers also rely on Amazon to have all the products they're looking for, thanks to partnerships with other selling channels such as Partner Count merchandise.

While such a vast array of offerings could be perceived as impersonal, VanAuken says Amazon does an exemplary job of fostering relationships with consumers by helping them make decisions through recommendations of items based on past purchases, user reviews and ratings and suggested complementary purchases. Consumers also have many options for forging a personal bond with the brand, including user profiles, reviews and ratings, wish lists and Listmania lists for recommending favourite products.


About the survey: The Values Institute, which conducted the study, identified five values that influence trust in a brand: ability (company performance); concern (care for consumers, employees and community); connection (sharing consumers' values); consistency (dependability of products/services); and sincerity (openness and honesty).

A total of 1,220 U.S. consumers were asked to rate each trust value on a five-point scale, from 'very unimportant' to 'very important.' Additionally, five consumer perceptions were measured for each value; these included statements such as 'They respond to feedback about their products and services,' and 'They value my business and reward me for the loyalty.' Each respondent rated two randomly selected brands; those who felt strongly were also asked to provide individual comments. The result is the 'Trust Index,' a composite score that indicates the level of trust respondents had with each individual brand in relation to the other studied brands.

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