This article is based on a panel discussion at our CMO Summit New York in March 2023.

In the ever-evolving landscape of data privacy, the question of how brands can build trust with their customers is more pertinent than ever. 

I’m Ceci Dones, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, formerly Head of Data Science at Moët Hennessy. My passion lies at the intersection of data and marketing, particularly in the realm of virtual environments and interpersonal relationships. 

It's a topic that's close to my heart, and I recently had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on Building brand trust in a new era of data privacy with a group of esteemed marketing leaders.

Anita Erker, at the time Chief Marketing Officer at Utrust, now Chief Growth Officer at Naka, brings over a decade of experience in the communication sector to the table. Anita's expertise in innovative marketing and blockchain technology offers a unique perspective on trust in the digital age.

Emily Maxie, former Chief Marketing Officer at Very, an Internet of Things consultancy, specializes in B2B marketing for early-stage companies. Her insights are invaluable, especially when considering how to foster trust in a sector where the Internet of Things is rapidly transforming how we interact with the physical world.

Julia Ulida represents Tensorflight, a B2B AI property intelligence platform that analyzes images from satellites and aerial sources to provide data to global insurance companies. Julia's experience is a testament to the importance of reliable data in building trust with clients in a highly specialized and data-driven industry.

Jake Randall, the COO at Common Room, shared his journey from helping to build Okta, a widely-used identity management service, to his current role at a community growth platform. His experience with Okta and Common Room provides a unique viewpoint on the role of community in building brand trust.

Each panelist brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the discussion, offering diverse insights into how brands can navigate the challenges of data privacy while maintaining and building trust with their customers. As we delved into the conversation, it became clear that transparency, security, and customer empowerment are key pillars of trust in today's digital marketplace.

Stay tuned as I share more insights and takeaways from this enlightening discussion in the following segments of our conversation.

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Digital trust: Perspectives from marketing leaders

As we navigate the complexities of data privacy in the digital age, the concept of trust has never been more crucial for brands. I had the privilege of exploring this topic with Anita, Emily, Julia, and Jake, each sharing their insights on what it takes to build and maintain trust in today's online landscape.

We kicked off the conversation with a simple yet telling exercise: gauging the audience's trust in well-known brands like Uber, Amazon, and Twitter. The varied responses set the stage for a deeper dive into personal experiences with trust in the digital realm.

Jake candidly shared his reliance on Amazon, driven by the convenience it brings into his life as a parent. The necessity of trust in this context is a powerful testament to the brand's impact on daily routines.

Julia expressed her respect for Google, reminiscing about the pre-Google era and appreciating how the search giant revolutionized access to information.

Emily highlighted Stitch Fix for its sophisticated data science practice and its respectful handling of sensitive personal data, showcasing how transparency and security can enhance trust.

Anita admires brands that offer a consistent, local feel on a global scale, citing Bata shoes and the online design platform Canva as examples of such trust-building consistency.

The discussion then shifted to the internal dynamics of organizations, particularly the roles of CMOs and COOs in relation to Chief Data Officers (CDOs). I posed a question about the challenges faced when there isn't a dedicated CDO to partner with in managing sensitive data.

Emily emphasized the importance of anonymizing data to utilize it in aggregate without compromising individual privacy, a task that requires close collaboration between technical and marketing departments.

Anita introduced the intriguing concept of a Chief Trust Officer, a role highlighted by Deloitte, which spans data, business, and marketing, safeguarding all aspects of compliance and privacy. The idea of having such a partner resonated with her, underlining the multifaceted nature of trust in business operations.

Jake echoed the sentiment, stressing the need for understanding the types of data at hand and leveraging them without violating regulations - a balance that is critical yet challenging to achieve.

These insights from the panelists underscore a common theme: building brand trust in the digital age is a multifaceted challenge that requires a blend of transparency, consistency, and compliance. As we continue to delve into this topic, it's clear that the role of data privacy is not just a technical issue but a cornerstone of the customer-brand relationship.

Trust dynamics in B2B and B2C

We delved into the nuances of trust within B2B and B2C models, exploring how trust with the consumer differs from trust with the customer. As someone deeply involved in the data science field, I find this distinction particularly fascinating, as it speaks volumes about the relationship dynamics and expectations in each model.

Julia emphasized the importance of customer relationships and a customer-oriented approach to data privacy. She noted that in B2B, it's often easier for customers to manage their data due to dedicated departments. However, the key lies in building transparent relationships with enterprise customers from the outset, ensuring clarity about data sharing and gathering practices.

Jake provided an interesting perspective on the dual roles in B2B businesses. He pointed out that while you may negotiate with a company's CIO or CTO, the end-users of your product - the employees - have a consumer mindset. This dichotomy requires a balance between satisfying the technical and security needs of the buyer and ensuring a trustworthy user experience for the employees. He used his experience at Okta to illustrate how vital it is for employees to trust the service they log into every day, regardless of the security certifications the service may boast.

Emily, representing a consultancy, spoke to the existential importance of trust in her business. With multimillion-dollar deals on the line, the consultancy's survival hinges on its ability to build and maintain trust, underscoring that without it, their business model would crumble.

Anita brought the conversation back to the core of trust - honesty. She argued that the market now demands hard truths and unwavering honesty, especially when dealing with something as sensitive as processing money. For her, trust is the ultimate currency. She highlighted four pillars essential to building trust: humanity, transparency, capability, and consistent quality of delivery. These pillars ensure that businesses don't just see you as a brand looking to grow but as a partner committed to helping them succeed.

As we navigated through these insights, it became clear that whether in B2B or B2C, trust is a multifaceted and delicate entity that must be nurtured with transparency, reliability, and a deep understanding of the human element at the heart of all business interactions.

Initiating trust: The foundation of customer relationships

We delved into the crucial first steps of establishing trust between brands and their customers. This phase is pivotal, as it sets the tone for the data exchange and the overall relationship. The panelists shared their strategies and experiences, offering a wealth of knowledge on initiating this delicate exchange.

Emily stressed the importance of knowing your brand's core values and promises. She believes that a clear understanding of what your brand stands for is essential before customers can trust you with their data. This understanding must permeate every aspect of the company, from the product or service to the overall brand experience.

Jake reiterated the significance of brand identity and its digital representation. He mentioned Strava as an example, where trust is built through community endorsement rather than the fine print of user agreements. The brand's digital presence and the values it communicates become the primary touchpoints for trust.

Anita highlighted the need for honesty, both internally when building business models and externally when communicating with the market. She pointed out a current shortfall in marketing ethics, where promises are made hastily without the certainty of delivery. Anita advocates for a balance between making claims and fulfilling them, suggesting that social proof and customer testimonials are invaluable in establishing external trust.

Julia shared the unique challenges faced in the niche insurance market where brand building is not just beneficial but necessary. She discussed the trade-off between data protection and the value of sharing data. In her experience, social proof was not an option due to customer confidentiality, so they focused on metadata and brand values. Julia recounted how Tensorflight's assistance to the Ukrainian government in assessing war damages not only aligned with their brand values but also showcased their ability to provide accurate data and respond flexibly to crises, further solidifying their brand trust.

From these insights, it's clear that initiating trust with customers starts with a deep understanding of your brand's identity and values. It requires a commitment to transparency and ethics, both internally and in market-facing interactions. By prioritizing these elements, brands can create a strong foundation for trust that resonates with customers and distinguishes them in the marketplace.

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Sustaining trust: A continuous commitment

Maintaining trust with customers is an ongoing process, akin to nurturing a personal relationship. It's a commitment that requires consistent effort and integrity. During our panel, we shared our experiences and strategies for preserving the trust we've worked so hard to establish.

Emily underscored the importance of keeping brand promises. She likened the loss of trust with a customer to the breakdown of trust in a personal relationship, emphasizing the difficulty of regaining confidence once it's been compromised. The key, she suggested, is to consistently "do what you say you're going to do," recognizing that while the concept is simple, the execution can be challenging, especially when faced with tough business decisions.

Julia agreed, noting that trust is much easier and faster to lose than to gain. In her industry, where data sensitivity is paramount, transparency isn't just a buzzword - it's a necessity. This has led to company-wide policies at Tensorflight, including regular internal audits and stringent data security regulations, to ensure that trust is embedded in their corporate culture.

Jake highlighted proactive communication as a cornerstone of trust maintenance. At Common Room, they make it a priority to explain to customers how their data is being used and give them control over it. This transparency is not just a value-add; it's a fundamental aspect of the product experience that sets them apart. Jake acknowledged that while this approach might place additional demands on the product team, it's these details that can significantly enhance customer trust.

Anita brought attention to the value of direct, two-way communication. She advocated for frequent "ask me anything" sessions with C-level executives and the formation of user groups to gather feedback and ideas. This approach not only fosters transparency but also ensures that the voice of the customer is heard and valued. Additionally, she pointed out that Utrust's use of blockchain technology inherently supports transparency, as transactions are recorded and trackable, further reinforcing trust through technological means.

From these insights, it's evident that sustaining trust is not a one-time effort but a continuous journey. It requires a blend of clear communication, transparency, adherence to promises, and the willingness to engage directly with customers. By embedding these practices into the fabric of our operations, we can ensure that trust remains at the forefront of the customer experience.

The transparency paradox: Finding the right balance

Transparency is often hailed as a key ingredient in building trust, but how much transparency is optimal? This was the challenging question we tackled next.

Emily shared a profound insight from one of her mentors: "Transparency without context is just cruel." She believes that while transparency is important, it must be balanced with context to avoid overwhelming or confusing stakeholders. It's not just about being open but also about being thoughtful regarding what information is shared and the narrative that accompanies it.

Jake added to this by sharing an anecdote from his time at Okta, where he would remind their Chief Security Officer to provide clear and concise answers during negotiations. His point was that transparency needs to be appropriate to the situation. In a negotiation, for example, too much transparency could lead to unnecessary complications. The context of the conversation and the audience's needs should dictate the level of transparency.

Anita Erker offered a practical approach to managing transparency. She collects frequently asked questions and feedback from the customer success team, which she oversees. This information is then discussed with the C-level team to determine what should be communicated transparently going forward. This process ensures that the level of transparency is consistent and tailored to the needs and concerns of customers.

From our discussion, it's clear that while transparency is crucial, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. The art lies in striking the right balance - providing enough information to build trust and demonstrate integrity, but not so much that it becomes counterproductive. 

This balance requires a nuanced understanding of context, audience, and the specific dynamics of each interaction. As we continue to navigate the complexities of data privacy and brand trust, finding this equilibrium will be essential for fostering long-term, meaningful relationships with customers.

Core insights on trust in the digital age

As we wrapped up our panel discussion before turning to the audience for questions, we each shared a key takeaway on trust in the digital era - a distilled piece of wisdom for the audience to carry forward.

Emily advised caution in transparency, emphasizing the difficulty of retracting information once shared. She urged companies to think long-term about what they disclose and to consider the implications of ceasing to share certain information once the precedent is set.

Julia succinctly put it: "Secure data is secure trust." She stressed the importance of robust data privacy regulations within a company and the need to be transparent about these practices. For her, prioritizing customer relationships and ensuring data security are paramount in maintaining trust.

Anita highlighted the power of storytelling in building trust. She suggested crafting your brand's story in a way that's easily understood and shared by others, as trust often stems from recommendations and the ability to relay positive experiences.

Jake reiterated the value of social proof in the digital age, drawing on the Strava example from earlier in the session. He pointed out that trust is built on the foundation of community endorsement, much like how people rely on Yelp reviews for restaurant recommendations. The interconnectedness of today's digital world means that peer experiences are more influential than ever.

These insights underscore a common theme: trust in the digital age is a delicate balance between transparency, security, and community endorsement. As we navigate this landscape, it's crucial to be thoughtful about the information we share, to protect and respect customer data, and to understand the influential role of social proof in shaping public perception and trust.

During the Q&A session, an audience member brought up a pertinent question about the challenges of navigating the patchwork of privacy laws emerging across the United States, similar to the GDPR in Europe. This is a critical issue for companies operating in multiple jurisdictions, each with its own set of data protection regulations.

Jake addressed the complexity of the situation, acknowledging that people's mobility adds another layer of difficulty. His strategy has been to adhere to the strictest standards, using them as a benchmark for compliance across the board. For instance, in Europe, they positioned their data center in Germany, leveraging the country's stringent privacy laws as a safeguard for broader European operations. This "lowest common denominator" approach ensures that they meet the highest privacy requirements, which should, in theory, satisfy less stringent jurisdictions.

Julia concurred, sharing that her company, being European, initially grappled with the implementation of GDPR. The initial phase was chaotic, with businesses scrambling to comply and seeking help from audit firms. However, she noted that what once seemed like a regulatory burden has now become a necessary part of doing business. Julia believes that the global trend is moving towards more stringent data privacy, and being organized and proactive in internal regulation setup is key to navigating this trend.

When the conversation turned to me, I was posed a challenging question about how Moët Hennessy navigates the evolving landscape of data privacy while still gaining valuable consumer insights to fuel business growth.

In the US, where I operate, the alcohol industry is uniquely complex due to its heavily regulated nature, featuring a three-tier system where we sell to distributors, who then sell to retailers, and finally to consumers. In some states, like Texas, there are even additional layers to navigate. This structure makes it inherently challenging to establish direct relationships with consumers and to collect data from them.

Our approach at Moët Hennessy was to focus on our brand values and the story we want to tell. We ask ourselves what the value exchange is for a consumer to engage with us digitally. What are we offering that makes sharing their data worthwhile? As a luxury brand, our priority is the experience - the emotions evoked by the sight of our bottles, the sound of a cork popping. These are the moments we strive to enhance through our digital presence.

We're not just selling a product; we're offering an experience that's synonymous with luxury and celebration. Our digital strategies are designed to augment these real-life experiences, not replace them. In this way, we maintain a connection with our consumers that respects their privacy while still providing the exceptional experiences they expect from Moët Hennessy.

In the face of stringent data privacy laws and regulations, we've learned that the key is to be as transparent as possible about our data practices and to ensure that every digital interaction with our brand is meaningful and enriching. This is how we continue to grow and maintain trust in an era where privacy is paramount.

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To round out the discussion, the audience's curiosity shifted towards understanding how companies navigate the treacherous waters of trust recovery after a breach or a crisis. This is a critical aspect of maintaining customer relationships, especially in today's digital age where trust is both fragile and paramount.

Jake shared a candid story from his time at Okta, where they faced a security breach. He highlighted the importance of transparency and direct communication in such situations. The executive team's approach to personally reach out to their top customers was a testament to taking responsibility and showing commitment to their clients. This proactive and personal outreach helped maintain their customer base, demonstrating that while breaches can shake trust, the response to the crisis is what defines the future of customer relationships.

Anita brought in a different perspective, sharing her experiences with government institutions and the blockchain industry. She emphasized the innovative approach of creating a digital brand that resonated with younger generations, which in turn influenced the perceptions of their parents. 

However, her story about a blockchain protocol suffering a 51% attack served as a stark reminder that in some cases, trust, once lost, especially in the realm of new technologies and finances, can be irrecoverable. Her suggestion to start anew with a fresh brand underlines the severity of trust issues in the tech industry.

These insights from the panelists underscore a crucial takeaway for businesses: trust is the cornerstone of customer relationships, and while it can be compromised, the manner in which a company responds to a crisis can either restore or further erode that trust. 

It's a delicate balance of transparency, communication, and the ability to demonstrate through actions that the company values and prioritizes its customers' security and trust above all else.

The world of data collection, security, and compliance is a major part of the next CMO Summit New York, on March 19th. Don't miss the opportunity to discuss the topic with some of the biggest names in marketing.