Thick versus thin
The human ability for managing relationships is limited. Network
theory has revealed that the optimum number of relationships we can
meaningfully hold is somewhere around 150. There are many examples
of how this has been a natural threshold. Armies, religious communities,
villages, businesses – all have found that groups of around this number
are most eective. Surely, though, with tools like Facebook or Twitter this
number is now defunct? Well, the evidence would tell us, not really, with
the vast majority of users of Facebook having somewhere between 100
and 200 connections.
If anything, what’s changing is not our ability to hold 150 deep or thick
relationships, but our ability to maintain many more thin relationships.
Thin relationships are, in many ways, at the heart of a societys store
of social capital. Francis Fukuyama, in his masterful book Trust (1995),
‘No, far from it, Dr Kohn replied, surprisingly emphatic. ‘I can’t see an
overwhelming reason why this should be a one-way ratchet. Human
societies have operated around communitarian or family or other
forms of collectivism for hundreds of years. The rise of the individual
is a relatively novel phenomenon, but, clearly, capitalism in its
current form is too focused on the narrow.
‘How does business start to regain the trust that has been lost and
become a greater net contributor to social capital then?’ I asked.
Well, I am persuaded that some people in particular businesses
have a genuine moral vision over and above their focus on
shareholders and, of course, there have been moral visions for
business in the past, such as the great philanthropists and the
model paternalistic employers. Clearly you can wield capital for
purposes that are self-evidently more than just returning value to
shareholders or yourself.
described how those societies with a greater ability to create generalised
social trust through the spontaneous sociability of associations like
churches or clubs create a higher level of social capital that can be drawn
on in the creation of prosperity. The USA, Germany and Japan, for example,
have rich traditions and processes that bind
people together and, in doing so, mould and
change behaviour, making it more predictable
and, ultimately, more easily trusted. This has
been fundamental to their economic success
over the past century.
What’s happened over the past 20 years as our consumer society has grown
is that brands have attained a deeper, thicker cultural context. We now feel
comfortable sharing and interacting through and about brands. We talk,
argue and desire brands. We use them to personify companies in a way that
would have been bizarre to people even only 100 years ago. They form a
narrative that changes our lives and relationships and moulds our behaviour.
The realisation that brands, the businesses that underlie them and the
marketing that propels them into our collective and individual consciousness
are a part of social capital is, for me, profound. This changes the rules and
puts a greater level of responsibility on us. We shouldn’t just adhere to a
broad denition of the ‘truth in marketing but
we must now also care about the individual and
collective impact of our actions and messages
on society as a whole. Getting our heads round
this will be the only way to sustainably regain
the trust in our brands, our businesses and our industry that we so badly
crave. Trust is a complex and many layered thing. Brands are a big part of
our trusting lives and recapturing trust in them is both a competitive and,
when seen in the context of social capital, a societal problem.
In this chapter, we’ve looked at the basics of trust and how this often
nebulous concept works to create trusted businesses and brands. We are
all living through a period of huge change in the landscape of who, what
and why we trust. In Chapter 2, we examine how trust is changing.
what’s changing
is . . . our ability
to maintain
many more thin
brands . . . are
a part of social

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