Trust, City Life–and a Meditation on Branding

One blog I follow is CityScope–an ongoing conversation about urban life and innovation around the globe. A recent post there focused on one of my preoccupations, the importance of trust in building social capital and facilitating city life, from a fresh perspective.

Obviously, trust has always been a social dynamic in cities. (So has mistrust. See Ferguson, Missouri.)  Today, some combination of technology, austerity and social transformation seems to be changing the conversation. The rise of mobile apps, social media and other web-enabled forms of communication are a big part of what’s going on. These platforms don’t create trust, but they do create new ways for us to discover trust and put it to work in cities.

The author of the post quoted Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, who described how his service, which lets people rent out their homes or spare bedrooms to strangers, had expanded to more than 34,000 cities in 190 countries in a mere six years.

“At its core, the thing that we invented wasn’t the ability to book someone’s home,” Chesky said. “What we invented was a very streamlined mechanism for trust.”

“Before us, essentially everyone was a stranger,” Chesky continued. “The only thing you could buy was from companies — those companies had brands, and those brands said the companies could be trusted. A person — you couldn’t trust. The moment identity got attached to people, suddenly the playing field was level. People could act as businesses. They could act as microentrepreneurs.”

I hadn’t really thought about the role of branding in creating trust, and reading this gave me one of those “aha” moments. Of course! That’s why people stop at a Wendy’s or McDonalds when they’re on a road trip–they “trust” what they’ll get; they’ll know what to expect. That’s why my husband orders his khakis from LL Bean when he buys on the internet; he knows what he will get in both quality and fit.  Creating and then fulfilling expectations is what “branding” is mostly about. (I do recognize that a large part of the preference for upscale appliances and identifiable designer clothing among those who can afford such things is not reliance on the inherent quality of the goods, but the message sent by flaunting the brand.)

Keeping one’s brand trustworthy is incredibly important to commercial enterprises. Public relations professionals sometimes specialize in “crisis management”–handling events that might reduce brand trust and thus loyalty. (NFL, anyone?) Companies that cannot manage these PR disasters find themselves in deep trouble.

Politically, we are about to see what happens when a political party’s brand becomes toxic to the nation as a whole, but the dynamics of the organization prevent cooler heads from “managing” the problem.

Recently, a Republican high in the party hierarchy admitted to a friend of mine that there is no way today’s GOP can win the Presidency; absent residential sorting, gerrymandering and voter “ID” laws, the party would not be able to win House seats. It may take another couple of election cycles, but the “brand” is increasingly toxic to younger voters, who “trust” it to take positions that are anathema to most of them.

When the old white guys who can be relied upon to support the brand no matter how repellent it has become die off, the Grand Old Party will face a choice: abandon its current radicalism and return to the center-right brand that sold well, or become irrelevant.


  1. You will still have big business with deep pockets to keep Republicans in power. Especially since the court has made decisions that favor oligarchy.

  2. Interesting observation.

    Of the many contagions introduced into our culture over the last few decades none has been more toxic than the thought, famously represented by the Ronald Reagan statement, government is not the solution, it is the problem.

    Current polling shows that only 44% of us trust Democrats, and 34% Republicans. I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to extrapolate from that that not much more than 1 out of 3 of us trust America, as government really represents us to each other and the world.

    We’ve come to believe that government of, by, and for we, the people, has failed.

    Yet pundits are saying, this year we will elect even more people whom we don’t trust to represent us in the institution that they don’t trust.

    Has brand marketing rendered democracy, and therefore freedom, obsolete? Are we truly no longer competent to self govern?

    I don’t know. I just don’t any longer.

  3. Perhaps, time for a name and location change …

    Russo Giorgio O’Malliano offa Chianti

  4. Pete, an important point that people don’t trust government, but going from there is the interesting part. I wonder how far it is from “I don’t trust” to “I don’t like” to “I hate” to “I want a different government; going to do something about it”. By the time that rolls around, the far right will have dropped dead or left the scene. On the other hand, the alienated could always do something really revolutionary: vote. Now that would be a novel way to deal with the problem.

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