by Mark Weinfeld, The Values Institute

Since 2012, three brands have dominated The Values Institute’s ranking of Orange County’s Most Trustworthy Brands, with each brand taking a turn at earning the highest overall cTrust score during that period. In-N-Out Burger has won the Restaurant Chain category every year since 2014 and was named the overall Most Trustworthy Brand in 2013 and 2014. The Automobile Club of Southern California (better known as AAA) led the Finance and Insurance category each year and was recognized as the overall Most Trustworthy Brand in 2012.

The Envelope, Please

Congratulations to OC’s Most Trustworthy Brand overall for 2016 … Trader Joe’s. The fiercely independent retailer with 457 stores was honored as the retail champion in 2013 and again this year, edging out Costco in the category, and now just squeezing past In-N-Out Burger as the overall trust champion of 2016.

The three brands share some things in common that seem to make the difference in each case. First off, all demonstrate a high level of quality in their products and services. All three also operate with a level of simplicity in their offerings, which contributes to a phenomenal track record of consistency. Companies must first excel at the basic needs of Competence and Consistency in order to reach the next level of trust.

Each of these brands is able to elevate trust through emotional factors that create a deeper relationship with customers. Candor and Concern are the dimensions that occupy this higher level of trust. These dimensions make the brand-customer relationship more personal and generally require some sort of one-to-one communication.

Employee Interaction Is key

One of the key findings that has emerged through years of TrustPulse™ surveys is that customers tend to place greater trust in a company when they have opportunities for positive personal interaction with the brand’s employees.

Look closely at these brands and you’ll notice how they break from category norms in the way employees interact with customers. 

Check Out the Produce

For example, Trader Joe’s trains its employees to comment on customers’ grocery selections at check-out. That brief interaction – whether to share a serving suggestion or just comment on how much they enjoy the product – gives customers a greater sense of openness and honesty. When employees show pride in the products they sell, they’re offering a tacit endorsement of the brand.

Trader Joe’s also has a reputation for compensating its employee-advocates quite well. Cashiers earn about $12-14 an hour, according to, while assistant managers can make $20-25 an hour. Store managers get paid upwards of $100,000 a year.

Quality You Can Taste

In the Quick Service Restaurant industry, In-N-Out Burger has long bucked the prevailing trend by paying its employees significantly more than the required minimum wage. Therefore, the chain has been able to attract the best of the best – and keep them. “All of our managers have worked their way up through the ranks of our associates,” said In-N-Out VP of Development, Carl Van Fleet, in a recent interview with public radio station KUT in Austin. “Every single one of them has done that. Our average store manager has worked for us for over 14 years.” Paying employees a higher wage actually helps In-N-Out save money over time by retaining high-quality workers who can make a longer-term commitment. “It leads more workers to be attached to the company,” says Van Fleet. “It avoids training. It avoids the cost of turnover.”  

In-N-Out also leads the way in how its employees communicate with customers. It was one of the first chains to employ “runners” who stand outside the drive-thru to take customer orders in person vs. waiting to talk through the intercom speaker. This innovation was added to accommodate the growing lines at the drive-thru and reduce the potential for mistakes. By increasing human interaction, In-N-Out eliminates the anonymity of the drive-thru and provides a more personalized experience that fosters trust.

Help Is on the Way                   

Can you name any other auto lender or insurance company that has a branded roadside assistance program with uniformed drivers that rescue stranded motorists, besides AAA? The company began as a membership motorist club known mostly for its tow-truck drivers coming to the aid of its members. 

But “Triple A” is much more than roadside assistance. It’s also a travel agency; an insurance company offering auto, home, and life insurance; and more recently, even banking services including a AAA MasterCard and automobile loans. Add in the company’s long history of in-house DMV services, a monthly travel magazine, and political policy advocacy on behalf of motorists. The broad range of helpful services demonstrates the Auto Club’s concern for the well-being of its members and creates a strong bond based on common values.


While it has outpaced the other finalists in all five Cs in its category, where the Auto Club has excelled most as a perennial trust leader over the last three studies is in the areas of Concern and Connection. In fact, the statement “Employees treat me with respect” was one of the top-two highest-rated (of the 20 statements rated) for the brand in each study.

Creating an Inside Connection    

For all 30 finalist brands surveyed this year, the lowest raw score shown in all of the 5 Cs was Connection. This factor, however, carries more weight in TVI’s cTrust calculation, because competitive superiority in Connection has been proven to provide the most direct correlation to better brand loyalty, and ultimately customer advocacy.

Customers of the Auto Club, In-N-Out, and Trader Joe’s all have a strong connection with these brands through a sense of association. Because they share common values, patrons feel like “this is a brand for me” and “we are members of the same tribe” and are proud to be associated with the brand and what it stands for. 

For instance, Trader Joe’s understands what it’s like for parents to shop with small children. Kids need an incentive to behave while mom or dad buys groceries, and Trader Joe’s provides it. When your kids find the monkey that’s hiding somewhere inside the store (in a different place every time), the store manager behind the desk is happy to reward them with a little treat (with the parent’s permission, of course).

Each of these three brands has done an outstanding job of making customers feel valued by giving them the sense of being an insider. When a brand’s best customers find out about a “secret menu,” or a hidden prize for kids, or even free perks that are not widely known by the general public, they feel like an activist for the brand. This exclusive connection – the feeling of being in-the-know – leads customers to tell others about their admiration for the brand.

It’s no coincidence that all three of these honored and trusted brands carry a list of “under the radar” truths that reflect their values. These small but Connection-building actions make customers feel a little more intimately involved with the brand. Here is a partial list of some of their no-so-secret secrets. 


Loyal to Brands, Not Points

Virtually all supermarkets have continued to build bigger stores, add more products, and institute weekly discounts on groceries by requiring customers to join a frequent shopper program – a strategy that has largely failed to win any loyalty. On the other hand, Trader Joe’s does not have a formal frequent shopper program of any sort and probably never will. Even their Fearless Flyer publication isn’t about short-term discounts on regularly stocked items. Instead, it focuses on telling stories about new products. Consequently, Trader Joe’s has created cult-like followings around exclusive products like Two-Buck Chuck, Cowboy Caviar, and Cookie Butter.

Consistency Counts

The fast-food world lives on the Limited Time Offering (LTO). Practically every month, burger chains roll out new variations of their base products at special prices in an effort to give customers a new reason to come back. The traditional way of building frequency is to always offer something new or on sale. But that doesn’t create real loyalty.

Meanwhile, In-N-Out Burger has not changed its menu since milk shakes were added in 1975. It has also never discounted an item. Nevertheless, the burger chain boasts higher loyalty scores than any other restaurant. The Auto Club membership card has always included the number of years you have been a member, printed right on it. But it’s not a discount or a reward – just a recognition that reinforces your decision to be a member of the club. Triple A continues to have unprecedented renewal rates from loyal customers. All of our Most Trustworthy Brands have earned true loyalty – to their brand, not to rewards programs.

Staying on Top Takes Leadership and Dedication

At TVI, we’re proud to continue conducting the annual Most Trustworthy Brands survey, so we want to conclude this year’s results with special recognition of the consistently outstanding performance of Trader Joe’s, In-N-Out Burger, and the Automobile Club of Southern California. It’s one thing to be a “one-year wonder,” but quite another to remain at the top of a category year after year. While these companies have continued to succeeded at winning the trust of their customers, they have never grown complacent or stopped striving to excel.

All of us intuitively know that meaningful, trusting relationships take work – day-to-day, month-to-month, year-over-year. So if you’re wondering what it takes to become a Most Trustworthy Brands champion, take a look these three brands and the level of dedication demonstrated by their respective leaders to live out their values on a daily basis. Congratulations to Robert Bouttier, CEO of Automobile Club of Southern California; Lynsi Snyder president of In-N-Out, and Dan Bane, chairman and CEO (and familiar radio spokesperson) of Trader Joe’s for demonstrating the commitment necessary to lead their organizations as perennial trust champions.