There once was a time when we trusted companies.

They said smoke and we smoked.

They said its good for you and we ate it up.

But then we found out that they were pumping us - and our environment - with things that werent good for us, they downsized us, made-off with our money and flooded us with commercials promoting increasingly meaningless product innovations.

Trust started to melt. In fact, according to Edelmans Index trust in U.S. businesses is at its lowest point in ten years.

All of this may not have mattered a great deal were it not for the development of two other major factors: the explosion of choice and, more recently, the development of social media enabling the sharing of opinion on a scale that weve never seen before. Now, how a company behaves can spread like wildfire " positive or negative - and reach a buyer increasingly willing to vote with their dollars on a companys ethical, social and environmental behaviour.

Witness the following:

  • The rise of fueled by its people-friendly customer service model culminating in its sale to Amazon for $940 million. Zappos CEO Tony Hseih nails it when he says People dont relate to companies, they relate to people.
  • United Breaks Guitars a story of poor customer service is seen by close to six million people on YouTube. Meanwhile JetBlue " with its far more customer-friendly reputation " attracts 1.3 million followers on Twitter vs. just 36,000 for United.
  • The financial equity of brands as measured by BusinessWeek & Interbrand falls for the first time in its 10 year history with an average drop of 4.6%. Yet many companies perceived to have strong values increase in brand value: Google +25%, Amazon +22%, Apple +12% and Ikea +10% making them less vulnerable to complaints and bad reviews.
  • New sites and apps for reviews and recommends pop up everyday increasing the use and power of peer-to-peer opinion. For example, Project Label aims to provide people-powered company nutrition labels which will allow you to compare the social value of a company in the same way you would its nutritional value.
  • projectlabel2

All of this can have a big impact on day-to-day sales for any size business. The other day a co-worker was just about to hire a certain mover when he came across which provides reviews of local businesses like movers. The mover he was considering had a 0 out of 10 rating so just like that the sale was lost and he moved on to a competitor scoring 9/10.

So whats a poor brand to do? Heres four ways to provide better proof of values:

1. Look inside, not out. Uncover your brands true values; not the hackneyed ones of honesty, diversity and respect " those are important for a healthy workplace - but you need the ones that make you unique in the marketplace. Re-find your brands passion. What made you who you are? State what it is the people in your company do in the widest possible social context. Small businesses are at an advantage here because the owner is often still involved in the business and embodies those values.

2. Hire with intent and fervour. A brand is what a brand does so Im not one of those in favour of outsourcing your reputation by outsourcing your customer service. Set your hiring standards high in terms of personality, fit and passion. Inspire and reward them for doing the right thing. Then get out of the way and let them do what they do best. Zappos takes this to the limit by actually offering employees $2,000 to quit after taking their training just so they can make sure theyve got the ones who care. You can see more in this inspiring video.

3. Yield not unto temptation. The leadership in any category is 2X as likely to change during a recession. Marketers in particular come under tremendous pressure to do anything and everything possible to make the sale even if it means pretending not to know that its not really employee pricing. There are lots of other ways to take immediate action with programs that are more insightful and promote - rather than demote - your brands values. Hyundais Assurance program allowed customers to get out of their purchase if the economy dealt their family a bad blow. Subsequently it enjoyed an increase of sales of 85% on some products and lasting value(s).

4. Engage in social media. Social media represents a fundamental change in the way we communicate. You cant afford to sit this one out. Developing a comprehensive review strategy and giving your customers the tools to say good things about you are just a few of a wide variety of tactics that can be done and measured.

So remember: its more important than ever to market not just what you sell but who you are.