Driven to believe

Editor's note: Dania Rich-Spencer and Stephan Schroeder are both vice president, automotive and mobility at Escalent. They can be reached at and, respectively.

From basic apps to advanced software and artificial intelligence, most products and services we use today are powered by technology. As brands across all industries increasingly rely on technological capabilities to deliver offerings, trust in technology has never been more critical.

The concept of trust is difficult to unpack. It is highly complex and comprises emotional as well as rational components, making it challenging to assess. It is also abstract and consumers can struggle to articulate how a product or service gains and holds their trust, leaving businesses with limited actionable information.

Yet regardless of its elusive nature, nothing is more essential to an organization’s success than trust. It serves as the basis for building relationships between brands and people and impacts how consumers respond to new and existing offerings.

Only one element

While the reputation of a brand is important in building trust with consumers, it is only one element of a larger equation. For brands to secure and maintain long-term, ongoing consumer trust, their products and services must be equally trustworthy – including the underlying technology powering any solution offered to consumers.

For example, a consumer may feel that a long-standing, reputable pharmaceutical brand is generally trustworthy yet still believe that a new product or service carries inherent risks, especially if it is an outlier among other offerings (such as the rapidly developed COVID-19 vaccines and boosters). While trust in a brand may give a new product a head start when it goes to market, trust in the product itself is ultimately key to fostering trial and adoption. This is true whether considering a highly complex, cutting-edge piece of technology (such as nanotechnology or robotics) or more basic products or services – consumers expect that what they purchase will work and that it will work the way that it should.

The result of building trust extends beyond supporting a brand’s financial success. It also opens the door to advances that are beneficial for society as a whole. Technology that is designed to make the world better, such as technology that provides access to modern health care, can be effective only when people believe it can be trusted to meet fundamental human needs or improve the quality of life.

So, how can trust be measured and how can it be earned?

At Escalent, we have spent decades studying how people establish and sustain trust in brands and products. As society becomes more and more entrenched in emerging advanced technology and artificial intelligence, we recognize the importance of understanding the relationship between humans and technology.

In 2022, we developed a behavioral science-based framework, called Tech TrustBuilder, that measures trust in technology and its key predictors. Our goal was to develop an instrument that provides diagnostic insights into trust to help companies undertake product and service development and improvement based on target consumer feedback rather than company speculation.

Our researchers found that the foundation of trust in technology is built upon three distinct building blocks: competency, process and intent.

Competency refers to the perceived technology’s overall ability to perform reliably and predictably. Process is about the operations of the technology and the user interaction, essentially the “how” of the product or service. Intent, or purpose, deals with the motivation behind the technology’s existence and the ultimate goal it was designed to fulfill.

Together, competency, process and intent paint a diagnostic picture of how consumers respond to the technology behind a particular product, service or experience. Understanding where there is opportunity for improvement in any one of these areas provides an avenue for a brand to address possible barriers and build trust in the technological aspects of its offering.

While all three components are crucial, their impact is weighted differently depending upon the brand, offering and industry.

For example, according to our findings on trust in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, competency influences people the most, followed by process and then intent. When it comes to trusting AV technology, people fall into a low-, medium- or high-trusting group. This is an important finding, as auto manufacturers of fully self-driving vehicles may believe non-car-owners are more trusting of autonomous vehicles due to their lack of vehicle ownership experience. However, this is not necessarily the case, as we found that non-car-owners fall into the medium-trusting group. As such, trust is not a given with these consumers. They too need to feel that AV technology is effective and proven and has people’s best interest in mind before they take on the risk of trial or adoption. To build that trust, automakers should consider focusing on competency, such as improving perception of “I believe the technology has the ability to do what I need it to do” and intent, reflected as “I am wary of the technology.”

It is critical that companies recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach to establishing trust and organizations must account for its multidimensional aspects. Building trust is highly specific and highly nuanced and happens on multiple, deeper levels. But, knowing precisely where to focus improvement efforts can help to accelerate the trust-building prerequisite that is foundational to the acceptance, and ultimate adoption, of a new technology or innovation. 

Starting point could vary

The starting point for a brand to build trust in technology could vary based on context, including where people are in their experience with and perception of technology in general, the roles technology has played in different societies and how various societies do and do not appreciate technology. Therefore, brands should consider how these things might impact their trust-building strategy.

To illustrate, Escalent recently was tasked with examining the levels of trust people around the world have in water quality enhancement solutions. We found there are certain factors to be aware of and address based on the country for which water quality enhancement offerings are being developed. By understanding the various consumer views toward particular technologies in different societies, we can envision what is required for people to adopt products and services that can make water safer and more accessible for everyone.

Additionally, when framing strategy and messaging to market a new offering, brands need to assess and consider where consumers are in their journey to trust. People’s individual and shared experiences as well as personal characteristics, such as location, educational background and socioeconomic status, also can impact how a consumer responds to the technology behind a product or service.

Not necessarily convince them

Brands commonly turn to education to pave the way for adoption of technologically complex services, such as robo-advisors, voice-assistant technology and artificial-intelligence-driven recommendations. However, presenting people with more facts and data will not necessarily convince them to bestow their trust.

Because of its multifaceted nature, establishing trust can require more than presenting numbers and statistics. Facts alone paint only part of the picture or, in some cases, focus on the wrong topic entirely. Instead, brands should address both the logical and more emotional sides of people’s brains.

In the case of AVs, automakers frequently default to informing shoppers about the operation and benefits of the vehicle’s advanced driver assistance system and how the improvement of these features will lead to fully self-driving capabilities. Despite this, our research shows that trust in AV technology has plateaued and sharing this type of information is effective only for a distinct type of consumer: the early adopter who falls into our high-trusting group, is excited by innovation and, ultimately, weighs possibility over risk.

By considering the emotions people associate with AVs, brands have a better chance of instilling confidence in self-driving technology.

To illustrate this, we found there are clear, consistent differences between high- and low-trust individuals, especially in their emotional responses, when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Those with a generally high level of trust in technology are more likely to feel safe, brave and intrigued by the prospect of AVs, whereas low-trust groups are much more likely to have visceral, adverse reactions such as worry and suspicion. These different emotional makeups call for vastly different messaging that get to the heart of instilling trust.

Consider all three components

To bridge the gap between skepticism and trust, brands should expand their approach to consider all three components of trust in technology.

Helping people believe in and feel comfortable with the capabilities of technology fueling a product, service or experience calls for a deeper, more informed approach to trust-building. An approach that diagnoses where and why trust is lacking and points to how to address those deficits ultimately can unlock consumer consideration, enthusiasm and loyalty.

Circling back to our study on trust in water quality solutions as an example, the technology we assessed promoted access to clean, quality water. By understanding why people did or didn’t trust existing solutions, we were able to identify what would be required for consumers to adopt new offerings designed to make water safer and more available.

As technology grows more and more central to our business and personal lives, understanding the full range of emotional and rational barriers standing in the way of adopting and placing trust in tech-based products and services will be the key to sustained success.