Trust - Ability, Benevolence, Integrity

There are three dimensions of trust: ability, benevolence, and integrity.

The Big Idea

There are three dimensions of trust: ability, benevolence, and integrity.

The Heuristic

What is trust?

There are many definitions of trust; one is “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor and control that other party”


Would you trust your pediatrician to land an airplane? Unless they happened to be an experienced pilot, I wouldn’t.

Ability is the dimension of trust that is suggests that a trustee capable of accomplishing what they are being asked to accomplish. If someone is “super great at getting the deal done, but I trust them as far as I can throw them,” they may meet the ability criterion while failing on the other two.


Benevolence is the extent to which a person or organization will do right by the trustor in situations where compliance would be voluntary. A classic example of a benevolent relationship is that of a mentor and a protege, in which the mentor wants to help the protege, regardless of individual profit or gain.


Integrity is the extent to which a trustee complies with the trustor’s values and will “do the right thing” by some shared ethical code. One central value, of course, is consistency: “I can trust him because he does what he says he is going to do.” Integrity is also tied deeply into the character, morals, and ethics of a trustee, which means that it transcends both the relationship and the domain.

Where You Can Use It

One big challenge marketers face is building trust. Since both trustworthy and untrustworthy actors have an incentive to build trust, an organization has to credibly signal that it is trustworthy in a way that would be difficult to fake.

First principle: what kind of trust are you asking for?

If you are selling shower curtain rings, the hurdle for integrity or benevolence may not be that high provided that they’re really good shower curtain rings. (Note: there are known exceptions.)

By contrast, if you are a medical doctor performing life-saving surgery, all facets of trust may be tested since your patient is expecting you to save their life, act in their best interest, and potentially make split-second decisions that they hope will comply with their own values.

Signals are credible because they are costly

Demonstrating your ability, benevolence, or integrity is hard—and it should be. Signals are only credible because they’re costly. And trust is, in may ways, an experience good—one that you can’t truly evaluate until you consume it. Being told that your doctor is “the best” is one thing; being told that by the same person who told you that the movie “Dirty Grandpa” was also “the best” might remind you that, at the end of the day, the only way to find out if someone is trustworthy is to try trusting them.

Here are some costly and credible ways to signal that you are trustworthy:

Respected Customer Logos

Selling into every McDonalds is a lot different from selling into the burger restaurant around the corner. Having a wide variety of recognized customer logos shows prospective customers that you are trusted by large firms that have diligence processes.

Customer Count

Having more customers suggests that you have won the trust of more individual accounts. After all, if you weren’t trustworthy, wouldn’t everybody leave?

Having fewer customers—for instance, if you are working in a high-end consultative service—might signal that you can be trusted because your clients’ business is important.

The hybrid—an individual with a small number of customers, inside of a larger organization with a large number of customers—can straddle this line effectively if you’re in an industry where individual trust is important.


Understanding elements of trust can help in sourcing and curation of testimonials.

Need to demonstrate ability? Find testimonials that can address the difficulty and complexity of the task, the skill with which you handled it, and the success you achieved.

Need to demonstrate benevolence? Find customers who can demonstrate that you went above and beyond what you said what you were going to do, or did something for them despite it being costly or high-effort for you.

Need to demonstrate integrity? Show customers that your values are just like theirs, and that they can trust you to value the same things as them. If you were a political candidate, what would say to your voters to make them believe that you’ll stand up for the things that matter for them?

Awards, Certifications, and Badges

Gartner, J.D. Power and Associates, G2Crowd, Yelp…every industry has its own set of certifications. Most Trusted, Highest Market Presence, Highest Rated… these are all expensive signals to win, and risky to advertise if you haven’t actually earned them.

Guarantees, or the Credible Threat of Punishment

Money-back guarantees, free trials, and other guarantees are a costly and credible way to build trust because they offer a credible threat of punishment if the trustor isn’t satisfied.


One way to build trust is to offer transparency. Exposing information about how the product is sourced, manufactured, or priced

Fashion brand Everlane uses this technique as part of a “Radical Transparency” initiative. Is it smart? One analysis of price transparency suggests that “luxury goods firms (with high perceived quality and relatively low unit cost) should not disclose their cost information” and “no firm should adopt the transparent strategy when the quality differentiation is high because different firms can set different selling price to segment the market.” For companies like Everlane, who have a mass-market product and a more limited ability to differentiate on price—“the transparent strategy becomes the additional lever for firms to segment the market.”

Internet search was a sketchy business before Google. Their big innovation was PageRank, a new mathematical technique that allowed Google to understand how important—or authoritative— a web page is based on both the number and quality of the inbound links.

It’s why an inbound link from The New York Times might be more important than an inbound link from 1 blog, but less important than an inbound link from 1000 blogs.

If you are lucky enough to have a number of inbound authoritative links, or authoritative press, it can be useful to showcse


Showing a phone number, address, chat widget, or any other signal of availability is a credible sign that you are available—which means that your business exists and people work there.

This can be such a powerful trust mechanism that it can be easily abused, as with locksmiths on Google Maps.

Community Goodwill

If you’re a company like BP, you may wish to advertise the work you did in the Gulf of Mexico to cause people to trust you after the Deepwater Horizon crisis. If you’re Shell, you may wish to advertising your work in promoting clean energy. If you’re a financial institution like American Express, you may wish to promote the work you do to promote small business.

Promoting good works can help to promote both benevolence—by showing the good things these firms do for others—and integrity—by emphasizing shared values with the end customers.

Articulating Company Values

Articulating company values can be helpful in solidifying the integrity of the company by emphasizing shared values. If you share values with a company, you’ll trust them to make decisions along the lines of your values.

Google’s core values emphasizes that “you can make money without doing evil” and that “democracy on the web works.” Nike’s core values emphasize “making our products more sustainably, by building a creative and diverse global team and by making a positive impact in communities where we live and work.”

Would you disagree with these values? Would most people? Of course not. I don’t think anybody is for doing evil.

By emphasizing not doing evil, or sustainability, or supporting our neighborhood businesses, these companies engage in some combination of virtue signaling and homophily —they are both morally good and just like us.