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Literature Review
Trustworthy: How the smartest brands beat cynicism and bridge the trust gap
by Margot Bloomstein
Wei Tay
Wei Tay
Andraž Kovačec
Andraž Kovačec
Roman Sommersacher
Roman Sommersacher
Soňa Tichá
Soňa Tichá

How Setting Boundaries Can Help Brands Build Trust With Their Audience

Originally published: 7 March 2024
Last updated: 7 March 2024

Setting boundaries in brand communication, as highlighted by Margot Bloomstein, fosters trust with the audience. Using examples like the FBI's Crime Data Explorer and Lovehoney's chatbot, the text illustrates how transparency, clear communication, and acknowledging limitations are essential. By openly conveying what they know and what they don't, brands educate their audience, manage expectations, and ultimately build lasting trust.

This book offers a blend of inspiration and practical strategies to cultivate trust in brands and organizations. Through real-world examples, it showcases how businesses and civic groups are rebuilding trust with customers and citizens. The book provides a three-part framework to empower marketers, designers, and writers to champion trust-building efforts within their organizations and communities.

Setting boundaries in brand communication is crucial in today's digital age, where consumers seek transparency and authenticity from the brands they interact with. By acknowledging limitations and openly communicating with their audience, brands can establish trust and credibility, ultimately leading to stronger and more meaningful relationships with their customers.

How setting boundaries can help brands build trust with their audience

You have probably heard of the importance of setting boundaries for healthy personal relationships. But what about in the context of helping a brand engage its audience? Brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein explores this concept in her 2021 book Trustworthy.

In particular, the chapter "Educate with Humility and Transparency" emphasizes the importance of clear communication and informed trust-building in various contexts. It discusses how communicators and educators can use transparency and humility to foster constructive and trusting relationships with their audience. 

Through interesting examples, Bloomstein demonstrates the benefits of a strategic approach to information sharing, where honesty and openness serve as the foundation for lasting and meaningful engagement. The focus lies on providing contextually appropriate information and being transparent about limitations or shortcomings to build trust. 

Concise and contextual crime data

One example of an organization that successfully embraced this approach is the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). For its Crime Data Explorer, the FBI ensures information is contextually appropriate through meaningful design elements that help users better understand the data and its limitations.

One limitation of the Crime Data Explorer is that its data is not comprehensive as it is self-reported. To make sure that users know this upfront, dynamic and integrated footnotes highlight the exceptions or caveats related to the data, such as if a specific year’s data was determined to be overreported or if there were special events leading to data anomalies. These footnotes put information in context and explain the shortcomings of the data, thus helping users avoid misunderstandings and negative repercussions.

If someone reads the data without the context explained in the footnotes, they might make false assumptions or inferences. This can even snowball into bigger errors if their misinterpretations are used in other research. When they realize the mistakes or someone else points them out, it can make people doubt the whole system. Therefore, the FBI's investment in clear instructions not only helps users to feel smarter and more sure of themselves, but also protects the institution’s reputation, values, and integrity.

To make criminal data easier for the layperson to understand, the Crime Data Explorer welcomes its users with a calm color palette and a clear mission statement: "Improving access to crime data". Users get a clear sense of how they can interact with the data through simple, familiar verbs such as "view trends", "download bulk datasets" and "access the Crime Data API". The website also adopts a conversational tone that avoids jargon that the general public is not familiar with, such as by spelling out “LEAs” as "law enforcement agencies."

You’ve got to love Lovehoney’s open approach

Bloomstein also highlights British erotic toys and clothing retailer Lovehoney's transparent approach for its digital chat feature. Lovehoney openly communicates what it knows and what it does not, in an effort to ensure customers understand why they can trust the chatbot, what they can expect from it and its limitations.  

Lovehoney uses its chatbot to provide clear information on toy design, materials, features and pricing. Right from the start, it highlights that the bot is experimental, and sets boundaries that it is meant to focus on helping users select the right product. If users reach the limits of what the chatbot can do, they are directed to the product pages or encouraged to talk to a real person. 

Furthermore, the chatbot talks in a friendly and conversational way. It uses simple language and short sentences to help customers understand and feel confident about what they are looking for. This open approach offers a breath of fresh air in an industry where products are clouded with euphemisms and secrecy.

This example emphasizes the importance of clear communication, transparency, and humility in conveying the information while acknowledging the limits of its depth. Straightforward and open communication empowers and educates users. By clarifying the boundaries of their expertise, organizations maintain the authority of that expertise.

In Lovehoney’s case, it does not hide what it does not know or what its chatbot cannot handle; instead, it shares that information upfront. This ensures that users are aware of the level of detail and quality to expect from the chatbot right from the start. 

Building trust requires brands to educate their audience, letting them know what to expect in every interaction and then meeting those expectations. This process helps to reinforce people’s confidence and validates their choice to interact with the organization again and again.

Exposing weaknesses to foster confidence

Both the FBI and Lovehoney were upfront with their limitations and conveyed their boundaries tactfully.

The FBI takes proactive steps to highlight weaknesses in its data and explain why the information remains valuable, encouraging trust and usage. While the context revolves around crime data, this approach is equally relevant for those involved in community management, product reviews, or fields involving user-generated content.

Lovehoney follows a similar strategy by reminding users that its chatbot is still in the experimental stage. This signals to users that despite the feature’s polished design, they should not expect it to be perfect. Lovehoney also refers to its company separately from the chatbot. This creates distance that allows users to provide feedback on the chat experience without influencing their overall perception of Lovehoney. 

However, this approach of distancing a brand from its chatbot does not imply that companies can shirk responsibility if their chatbots make mistakes. They need to be accountable for the information that their chatbots convey to maintain the users' trust. 

Just look at the example of Air Canada, which was ordered to pay compensation to a customer after its chatbot gave him misleading and inaccurate information. Although AirCanada argued that it considered the chatbot as a “separate legal entity” that is responsible for its own actions, the court ruled that the airline should be responsible for all the information on its website, no matter whether it comes from a static page or a chatbot. The onus is not on the users to double-check information from the chatbot against other parts of the site. If the airline had owned up to its mistake and put its users first, it could have avoided this public relations nightmare and retained trust.

In conclusion, Bloomstein emphasizes that transparency, clear communication and openness can go a long way in helping a brand build trust with its audience. Clear messaging, content design, graphic language and tone of voice all work hand in hand to make information more accessible and usable. At the heart of it, by delivering information with humility and simplicity, organizations earn their audience’s confidence and build a strong foundation for long-lasting and trusting relationships with them.


“Expertly written, deftly organized, impressively informative, and a thoroughly comprehensive ‘DIY’ instruction guide, Trustworthy is an especially and unreservedly recommended addition to professional, corporate, community, college and university library business management collections and curriculum lists.” Midwest Book Review

“Marketing directors at all levels will find her insights intriguing … a punchy and stimulating look at building brands.” Kirkus Review


Bloomstein, M. (2012). Content strategy at work: Real-world stories to strengthen every interactive project. Morgan Kaufmann.