How Microsoft Earns Users' Trust

“Alexa, I have a confession to make.”

(Seductive female voice), “What’s that, David?”

“I spent most of the morning on social media when I was supposed to be working.”

“I know that already, David. You were on Facebook from 09:23 AM to 10:33 AM. You posted photos of your recent vacation and a video about kittens. You i-messaged an old friend from your schooldays. You viewed baby pictures posted by your daughter on Instagram and ‘liked’ three of them. You conducted several Google searches about weekend activities, white supremacists, craft beer and prescription drugs. You started work at 12:03 PM and stopped at 12:24 PM for lunch; you bought a chicken sandwich and an iced tea at the cafeteria”.

Like it or not, the internet knows all about you. If you doubt this, just take a look at your surfing history over the past week. How comfortable would you be if this information became public, or was used to target advertising at you?

Internet companies bear a heavy responsibility to protect our data. Unfortunately, some have not demonstrated adequate concern for their customers’ privacy and have run afoul of regulators as a result. Microsoft, however, is an exception.

Since taking the reins in 2014, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella has led the company with a more sensitive and transparent style than his predecessors. Nadella and Microsoft President Brad Smith have become advocates for user privacy and ethical guidelines for new technologies.

A cynic could argue that this is not a difficult position for Microsoft, since its business model, unlike that of Facebook, does not depend on sharing data and targeted advertising. In addition, Microsoft does not market “smart” devices like Alexa, that may not be so smart about data protection.

Nadella, however, is unquestionably smart about maintaining trust in the Microsoft brand.

Microsoft’s ranking in the annual Gustavson Brand Trust Index shows just how smart: the brand has steadily gained trust in the face of intense pressure on the industry. The index measures trust in just under 300 national brands, in a sample of over 6,000 consumers, across the country. This year, Microsoft ranked 15th, up from 38th last year and 75th the preceding year.

Nadella evidently recognizes the importance of brand trust. In a recent opening talk at Microsoft’s annual Build conference for developers in Seattle, Washington, he referred to user privacy as “a human right”. With business models that depend heavily on user data, that’s a difficult position for companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to take – but it’s one that is placing Microsoft in the vanguard of trusted brands.

The study was conducted in February, 2018, before the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data abuse scandal hit the headlines. Yet, even then, Microsoft led the Technology category, beating out Google, Amazon and other tech giants. Facebook ranked 295th, close to the bottom of the index.

For users, the data genie is already out of the bottle: aside from regulations to control the worst excesses, a great deal of our data is already available. The future belongs to those who use it responsibly, and thereby earn our trust.

David Dunne, Ph.D.
Professor and Director, Full- and Part-Time MBA Programs