Trust Us: We’re Evil
In Order to Be Trusted, People Must Know What You Stand For
By Ed Lynes
“Don’t be evil:” It’s a pretty simple code of conduct most people could easily agree to live by. In fact, it’s so universally accepted few individuals—or organizations—would feel compelled to put such an admonishment at the center of their beliefs.
Then again, most organizations aren’t Google.
In 2000, Google recognized that its aim to organize all of the world’s information was increasingly putting it in a unique position of global influence. The company adopted its “Don’t Be Evil” mantra not only as a guideline for how to treat users, but as a way of encouraging employees to consider the outsized ramifications of their actions in product and business development.
Less than 20 years later, that slogan was out of vogue at Google. The demands of growth—desire to enter certain foreign markets and certain lucrative opportunities—made esoteric evaluations of morality impractical. To Google’s credit, they canned the phrase and have continued to grow. Today, they are the third-most trusted brand among American consumers, despite abandoning their pledge.
One company you won’t find anywhere among the top 25 most trusted brands in America? Facebook. At first glance, that ought to be surprising: more than 2.7 billion people worldwide use Facebook each month, providing it with untold amounts of deeply personal information. How could those users trust the social network less than M&M’s?
Both Facebook and Google have aggressively pursued growth wherever they can find it, be that new markets, services, or products. Both are among the most innovative and transformational companies in the world. And, both are increasingly gatekeepers to the information people need to remain informed and connected with the world.
Where the brands diverge is how they have balanced the competing demands of pursuing that growth with acting in a manner which honors the promise they make their customers. For a company to build lucrative, long-term relationships with its customers, it must be willing to sacrifice some elements of growth in the short-term; pursuing a strategy of growth-at-all-costs can quickly give way to a brand distrusted by customers, besieged by high employee turnover, and ultimately challenged to remain sustainable.
Companies that want to grow both quickly and build affinity required for long-term value must abide by a consistent belief framework that is both well-defined enough to establish trust with customers, and flexible enough to remain relevant in the long-term. This equilibrium is what creates maximum value for all stakeholders.
They may not have realized it, but Facebook users were given a glimpse of this equilibrium in November 2020. In the aftermath of the US presidential election, misleading and inaccurate news items flooded Facebook users’ timelines, making unsubstantiated claims about election fraud. Still smarting from its oft-criticized role in the 2016 presidential election and the spread of fake news, Facebook executives made a change to the newsfeed: they amplified what were considered reputable, mainstream news sources over more extreme, partisan outlets.
It worked: vitriolic posts on the platform received less reach, legitimate news was amplified, and a kinder, gentler Facebook briefly took shape. The only problem? In Facebook’s own research, reducing the exact types of controversial posts users consider “bad for the world” also decreased the number of times they opened Facebook, and the amount of time they spent on the platform.
Not surprisingly, these changes to the newsfeed proved temporary.
Such profound influence over how people perceive the world may be a part of why more than 60 percent of Americans don’t trust Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, though, argues this lack of trust is rooted elsewhere: “[Facebook’s] goal for the next decade isn’t to be liked, but to be understood, because in order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for.”
He’s right, of course. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has proven that the foundation of trust between people are shared values—being trusted, quite literally, requires others to know what a person stands for and to agree with it. It’s why companies with big aspirations make such a considered investment in defining their purpose, values, and the story that communicates them; they know that more than any single product improvement or campaign, that is what will unlock long-term value.
When a company can clearly and compellingly communicate its beliefs, and align those beliefs with customers, employees, and investors, it cements a bond that goes deeper than any product. It’s what creates long-term brand affinity, forms the trust that allows customers to buy additional products, and ensures they stick around through the inevitable hiccups that occur in any relationship.
Facebook has taken the time to define and articulate what it stands for. The brand’s mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” There are five core values espoused to ensure the platform achieves this mission:
- Be Bold
- Focus on Impact
- Move Fast
- Be Open
- Build Social Value
The disconnect isn’t that people haven’t taken the time to explore the culture and investor relations corners of Facebook’s website. It’s that when presented with a choice between acting consistently with these values or more quickly hitting the next growth milestone, Mr. Zuckerberg consistently prizes the latter.
Words on a website are one thing. But the behavior of the company and its leadership reveals what it truly values: actions speak loudest, and a failure to align them does more damage to customer trust than not defining those values in the first place.
Zuckerberg’s own comments about Facebook express this problem clearly. Four years after launch, he told theWall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher, “Facebook is about helping people share information and share themselves.” This thinking is the brand at its most pure: working to empower users to tell their own stories, the exact type of affirming, customer-centric message that resonates with people and fuels growth. The Facebook user was the hero of its story, and the brand existed to empower them first and foremost.
In the ensuing five years, though, a shift occurred. In a personal post, Mr. Zuckerberg reiterated that Facebook’s mission remained to “connect the world,” but the focus of the company—the hero if its story—had changed. Users were no longer the brand’s focus and hero, they were the product: “we need to serve that class of partners well on the marketing side, build good products for them and appreciate that we need to grow at a certain rate to attract the kind of people we need to keep attracting.”
To Facebook’s credit, this shift accelerated its growth and has led to it being among the world’s most valuable companies. But, it also laid the groundwork for the problems that bring its long-term sustainability into question—indeed, the platform’s troubles acquiring and engaging younger users are well-known, and have led to a growth-by-acquisition or imitation strategy in lieu of better options.
More crucially, the tension between Facebook’s growth-first mindset and its stated purpose and values are leading to challenges with those most responsible for the brand’s promise: employees.
As of November 2020, only half of Facebook employees believe the brand is having a positive impact on the world (down from 75 percent earlier in 2020). Employees have less desire to stay at Facebook, and their confidence in leadership has eroded. This change in internal perception is perhaps a warning sign to long-term prospects: if those who know the brand most intimately and are charged with ensuring its future don’t want to stick around, why would users?
It seems unlikely Facebook, or any brand, can reach its potential in the long-run with such a disconnect between the story it tells and the way it conducts its business.
Growth—be it in user count, revenue, or any other metric—is a lagging indicator. Although many organizations prize it as an objective in and of itself, it’s really the result of a process that begins with a clearly defined purpose—one that inspires investors to back it, animates employees to bring it to life, and draws in customers willing to pay for its realization. Valuable organizations unite all of these stakeholders within the framework of a story, and use that narrative as the blueprint for how to act consistently and in a manner that creates maximum long-term value.
When a brand abandons this framework to pursue growth as an independent objective, trust begins to erode. Customers perceive the disconnect between profit and purpose, and so do competitors—who see opportunity. Growth may continue in the short-term, but this disconnect is the first sign it will stall.
Facebook’s challenges acting ethically bring the contrast with Google’s abandoning of its “Don’t Be Evil” pledge into clearer focus. How could Google abandon and not suffer an erosion of customer trust on par with Facebooks?
Google’s purpose has always been utilitarian and dispassionate: “to organize the world’s information and make it accessible and useful.” Inherent in this purpose is the trade-off all Google customers are familiar with: services that are nominally free, but come at the cost of user data and targeted advertising.
The decision to drop Google’s motto wasn’t a commitment to doing evil. It was a recognition that achieving its mission was increasingly devoid of moral judgement altogether: governments, foreign countries, and questionable content are among the information that must be organized in the world. Google saw that its promises and actions wouldn’t be in alignment, and the company embraced telling a story it believed. Transparency and authenticity build trust, even if the actions Google takes are different thanwhat users might prefer in a vacuum.
Google and Facebook operate on a scale at which their decisions reverberate widely. But all organizations require the same framework: in a world that’s moving ever more quickly, is increasingly complex, and presents novel problems, it has never been more essential for a brand to know what it stands for, to have a framework that communicates it clearly, and to infuse that purpose into all it does. The outcome is growth that’s sustainable, and a brand that achieves the best value for customers, investors, and employees alike.
Ed is a founding partner at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Ed on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at email@example.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.