Why Consumers Trust American Express


Isaac Scarborough of Chapell & Associates explores the ROI of protecting consumers' privacy, and why that's working for AMEX.

We all know how easily consumer anxiety can turn into skittishness - something that has become especially evident today. Recent data breaches have led consumers to express concern about the information they share online. For the companies that have experienced these breaches, regaining consumer trust can be something of an uphill battle. And I'm sorry to say that those of us in the online world who collect consumer data are - to some extent - feeling the impact of those breaches.

In other words, consumer distrust is starting to bleed over into our collective back yard.

We all can probably agree that the safe and responsible use of consumer data is a necessary ingredient for our business. But avoiding data breaches will only take you so far. Smart online marketers need to use data in ways that are beneficial to their customers. They need to develop more proactive strategies in order to build consumer trust. The value of good privacy practices has been espoused by privacy professionals for several years. Unfortunately, there wasn't a substantive amount of research seeking to quantify privacy and trust -- until recently.

TRUSTe and the Ponemon Institute have just released a new report detailing which companies consumers trust the most with their private information. Unsurprisingly, those companies with well-covered data breaches have dropped in the rankings. But if we're looking for examples of concrete trust-building we need look no further: right there at the top of the "Most Trusted Companies of 2005" report is a credit card company that has so far avoided the bad press awarded to many others in the financial services space - American Express.

Building consumer trust

Interestingly, American Express is the only credit card company in the top twenty. And of financial institutions, it's one of four, along with Washington Mutual (17), Charles Schwab (12), and E-Loan (16). The rest of the most trusted companies are mostly retail outfits -- Amazon.com, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Dell, IBM, et cetera. What might tie them all together, though, is having kept their houses clean through a year of well-publicized data breaches.

Seventeen percent of consumers -- almost twice as many as in 2004 -- reported being concerned with the "media and press coverage about the privacy and data practices" of a company. And fifty percent of respondents said that the "sense of security protections when providing personal information" was important. Security breaches and the attendant bad press do seem to have had an effect: banks, credit card companies, and financial services all dropped in the rankings collectively.

How has American Express retained its position? Kimberly Forde, an American Express spokesperson, told me that "American Express is very pleased to be recognized by consumers for its ongoing and strong commitment to privacy." Moreover, she felt that American Express had done a lot to build consumer trust: "Trust and security have been the hallmarks of the American Express brand for more than 150 years. Our privacy program is a robust one that addresses the landscape of consumer concerns."

American Express sees a return on promoting consumer privacy -- that is, in making "trust and security" a hallmark of the brand. What we can take away from this is that consumer privacy is becoming an added value for a company. This is to say that some organizations are starting realize that they can build customer bases by saying "we protect you from identity theft."

Adding value via privacy

Online businesses, of course, have been dealing with similar issues for a while, and there are some new online companies in top twenty, including search engines Google (11) and Yahoo! (19). Is Google higher than Yahoo! in the rankings because it's more trustworthy? I couldn't say. When consumer privacy becomes a value add, then it can be difficult for consumers to separate their trust in a product from their trust a company's privacy policy.

The report notes that consumers take a lot of things into account when evaluating how much they "trust" a company. Even when asked about their data, this probably includes many things completely unrelated to privacy. This might have something to do with the makeup of the top twenty. Both Hewlett-Packard (4) and Dell (8) are up a point or two -- but its hard to tell if their top ten ranking is due to increasing their privacy standards, or just that consumers trust the brands themselves (and I really don't know why Disney (20) is down nine spots - notwithstanding Disney's somewhat creepy practice of fingerprinting visitors to Disney World).

There are many different components of consumer trust: product quality, customer service, privacy, et cetera. And while we wouldn't want to overplay its relative value, data privacy is an increasingly important part of why consumers trust an organization. Because of this, we're eventually going to want this sort of study to tease out the privacy portion of the trust equation - to differentiate consumer trust in privacy practices from trust in a product or brand.

Nevertheless, we at Chapell & Associates believe that the responsible collection and use of customer preference data is critical for successfully building consumer trust. And while there are lots - and I mean lots - of guidelines, best practices and rules out there dictating what "responsible collection and use" means, there's been no systematic effort to turn these into one set of coherent principles for marketers. With that in mind, look for Chapell & Associates, in conjunction with the Ponemon Institute, to come out with a Permissions Management Bill of Rights by early next year.

TRUSTe says its next step will be to evaluate the top twenty's privacy policies and records before selecting the official "Most Trusted Company of 2005." We're going to have to do a lot of this sort of digging to see just how much financial benefit the most "trustworthy" companies have derived from their treatment of personal data, but the reward should be evident. The Ponemon institute itself did some of this back in January, finding that, on average, consumers were 11 percent more like to share information with a company they had a "trusted relationship." So yes, Virginia -- there really is a ROI to privacy.

About the author

Isaac Scarborough covers market trends for Chapell and Associates, a consulting firm that helps companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. He has worked briefly in the offices of Senator Domenici (R-NM), where he assisted legislative aides with the Senator's role as Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. Prior to this, he was with e-thePeople.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting deliberative democracy online.

Originallly published in iMedia Connection, October 2005

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