A queen bestows knighthood

Do you believe in trust at first sight?

Winning customers’ trust is a top prize for brands. And when that trust is lost, it’s very difficult to regain. So how can you get ahead of the competition with your trust-building strategy? In an interview with Fraser Allen, Dr. Charles Spinosa offers a fresh perspective.

Illustration: Islay Brown

Like love at first sight, the idea of trust at first sight is not very fashionable. We like to believe that trust comes from repeated, reliable performance. But we’ve all experienced a sense of trustworthiness from certain people and certain brands at our first encounter. It’s not because their reputations preceded them but because something just clicked. Intellectual fashion dictates that it was a cognitive bias that clicked. Or perhaps you like certain behaviours or personality types. These suppositions are simply not right. We still have an awareness of virtues, and we see virtues in people quickly. We see the wise person quickly – likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight. We trust people who exhibit virtues we admire.

“We see the wise person quickly – likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight.”

In fact, we trust at first sight frequently. Recall walking into a store for the first time, and it feels great. Consider retailers who encourage customers to try on the products and who have showrooms for testing the products. Consider other retailers whose employees are clearly having a great time when you walk into the store. In the first case, the retailer appeals to the virtue of exploration. If you admire this virtue, you trust the store. In the second, the virtues on display are those of an entertaining host or hostess. If you want your brand to become trustworthy, your team needs to cultivate admirable virtues in your employees and business and make them visible.




Building customer trust is also about anticipating customer anxiety. The best brands are very good at anticipating that anxiety and doing everything they can to remove it.

Take Amazon. It’s an ‘everything store’. You can find anything there, and its prices are low. But while that’s fine if you want to buy books or CDs, it’s not so good if you’re buying clothes or diamond necklaces because you want to try the clothes on or see the jewellery for yourself. That creates anxiety – an anxiety that springs directly from the very successful business model. Jeff Bezos doesn’t want to change his business model, but he does want to remove that anxiety. So he spends a lot of money making sure that things get to customers very quickly, communication is strong, and everything is very easy to return if the customer isn’t happy. I’ve been polling clients and asking them: “What do you find so cool about Amazon?” And they say it’s the convenience with which they can return things, which is sort of crazy. They overlook the selection and the prices, which are what got them to Amazon in the first place. But customers appreciate brands that work to overcome the anxiety bred by their successful business model.



This is particularly true of banking. Most bankers are financial optimisers, and a considerable portion of their customers are not. As a result, bankers have no idea about the anxiety they create. A while back, I was working with a bank in the UK to help it sell mortgages. Bankers see a mortgage as a useful financial instrument, but most of their customers regarded it as a harrowing obligation they have to go through to get a home. Indeed, a huge segment see a mortgage as a ball and chain around their neck, and they don’t feel they own the sacred space of their home until they’re free from the mortgage.

I’ve carried out many thought experiments with these customers. Consider this: “Suppose you have a mortgage for £500,000 and you’re paying 3% interest on it. Then suppose you also have a very wealthy relative who dies and leaves you £500,000 invested in a way that is producing 10% interest. What do you do?” Most people said: ‘It’s obvious! I would take the money out those investments and pay off my mortgage!”

Keep in mind, if you genuinely value owning things outright, then your decision to forego the higher revenue you would gain from the interest on the inheritance is not an emotional one; it’s a rational one.

“The bankers struggled with the concept. The idea of taking money from the credit card balance to pay off the mortgage didn’t fit with their way of thinking about the flow of money within their business.”

With this particular banking client, we came up with an idea whereby customers were helped to pay off their mortgage if they used the bank’s credit card. Each month, the bank would take 1% off the customer’s credit card balance and remove that from their mortgage balance. It was a product that would enormously mitigate the anxiety they felt about their mortgage. The hyper-responsible customers who wanted outright ownership would exclaim, “I almost never use my credit card, but if it were paying off my mortgage, I’d use it for everything!”

But the bankers struggled with the concept. Those in marketing came around to the idea. But the banking product accountants suffered. The idea of taking money from the credit card balance to pay off the mortgage didn’t fit with their way of thinking about the flow of money within their business. In the end, the product was watered down considerably. The accountants couldn’t get themselves inside the head of their customers. They wanted their customers to think about their products the way they thought about them. But customers are different. And you don’t build trust when you do not listen out for that difference and accommodate it.



If you don’t assume that your customers are different from you in interesting and valuable ways, you’d better just take the big data approach. That satisfies our fantasies that everybody is like us. It gets us in touch with customers at the moment that they happen to be most like people who run the business.

Many brands take the big data approach, even great brands. But the best brands also think about their customers as different from those running the business.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the desire to see your customers as like you.”

Don’t underestimate the power of the desire to see your customers as like you. We worked with a large cement manufacturer for more than 20 years. It wanted to sell more cement to poorer Mexicans living in the grey economy. These Mexicans generally don’t have enough money to purchase bags of cement. The obvious idea was to extend credit to them, but that didn’t work because they didn’t feel obliged to pay the money back to a large company. We realised that we could encourage them to form groups in which they pooled their money together, and one person every month got to buy cement. That created a bond, and everyone in the group felt honour-bound to pay their share. It worked really well. The company sold three times more cement, and the customers were happy because they were adding rooms to their houses much faster and at a lower cost because they received the cement just in time, and it did not spoil.

But then a new CEO came in and decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He wanted his customers to think like him and buy cement as he would. The upshot? The customers were disappointed, the company sold less cement; trust was lost.

Book cover: Chaucer - The Franklin's Tale



Organisations can be very imaginative when it comes to data profiling. They’ll come up with different types of customers and draw pictures of them and list their personality types. But it’s interesting how often these profiles look very similar to the marketing people who have drawn them. They’re usually just five different versions of the marketing manager at five stages in his or her life. It’s very difficult to create meaningful profiles of customers from data without projecting our own assumptions and preferences onto them.

One way of helping to develop the skill of seeing a radical difference is to read literature from moments in history when people were different from us. I remember getting students to read Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale”. In the story, a knight falls in love with a lady, and she puts him through various courtship ordeals to prove his love. I would ask students: “Why, ultimately, does she fall in love with him and marry him?” And they would say: “Well the guy was doing all these things for her, and she saw he would make a good partner. Deep down he must really have loved her.”

But there is a clear line in the poem where the narrator says; she fell in love with him because she “pitied” him. I would point out that line and the students would say: “You can’t take that line seriously. That’s not what love is about.” I would say: “Well how about if you do take it seriously? How about if you think that there is now a huge difference between how we see love and how people did in the Middle Ages. Then you begin to see that love in the Middle Ages was a quite different animal from what we have today. In those days, a woman was made to feel like a goddess, and the knight, as a lover, would have to humiliate himself before the goddess. There were strong hierarchical and religious aspects to love, and those aspects are gone today. If you see that difference between then and now, you also begin to see there are various versions of love, even now. That is essential if you want to sell something to lovers. There are partnership lovers, companionate lovers, convenience lovers, and even a few romantic lovers left.

I have just recounted the three most counterintuitive steps to building customer trust: exhibiting virtues to enable trust, at first sight, taking care of anxieties created by your business running at its best, and listening for the radical differences between your customers and you. Except for the last two, the remaining 6 steps for building trust are widely accepted.


Charles Spinosa

Charles Spinosa, Ph.D., is Group Director at VISION Consulting. For 20 years he has helped clients deploy trust-building customer experiences that drive profitable increases in market share. UK financial services clients have included RSA, UK Post Office Financial Services, Deutsche Bank and ABN AMRO. In addition to trust, Charles writes on issues such as corporate politics, transformational leadership, innovation and promise-based management.

We see the wise person quickly – likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight. We trust people who exhibit virtues we admire.



  1. Make sure your employees and business exhibit the virtues you and your customers admire. Go full force here if you want trust at first sight.
  2. Figure out what it is about your business model running at its best that makes your customers anxious, and create a customer promise to take care of the anxiety.
  3. Be humble and always be willing to listen and to learn what your customers think and how they are radically different from you.
  4. Build a culture of trust by extending some trust to employees and suppliers.
  5. A little vulnerability is better than no risk — risk-free means trust-free.
  6. Make your business a visible, active part of the community. Draw other businesses in and create your own community missionaries. Pay your employees for days off doing charitable work in the community.
  7. Create an improvisational space for having open and genuine conversations with your customers so that you can really get to know them. Ask unusual questions. Share ideas. Give away stuff for free.
  8. Judge your success on the mood of your customers. Go out and ask customers what they think and feel about your business.
    Trust is reciprocal. Demonstrate that you genuinely trust your customers, and they are likely to trust you.
  9. Consider how much would you have to change things so that you could lend your customer the key to your business and trust that they would act responsibly? The high trust bankers at Umpqua Bank do that. Make whatever changes you need to build that trust.

Databases. We use them as warehouses of information. At their simplest and with a nice user interface they provide the underpinning to the familiar office spreadsheet. A greengrocer may use one for monitoring stock. A window cleaner may use one for tracking jobs and invoicing. A librarian may use one for managing book loans.

A blockchain is similar to a database. You might have heard a blockchain described as a ‘digital ledger’, which is a database by another name. And, like a normal database, a blockchain serves a practical purpose – whether monitoring stock levels, tracking jobs or managing book loans.



We address some frequently asked questions with plain-English answers.

Data added to the blockchain forms a ‘block’. Consequent data is inputted in the form of blocks, adding to the chain. The result? You guessed it: a blockchain. Think of it like a chronological list of entries on a database.

But this is where the similarities end. Blockchains have two distinct and defining advantages over databases: transparency and security. Let’s look at transparency first (and come back to security later).

Databases tend to be administrated by a central party. In this sense, they are considered ‘centralised’. The greengrocer, the window cleaner, the librarian – they are all the central administrators of their own databases, and they keep their databases to themselves.

Blockchains, on the other hand, are transparent. They are distributed and used in peer-to-peer networks during transactions. All ‘peers’ involved in any given transaction have, through their matching copy of the blockchain the ability to see the ‘world state’ of that transaction whenever they want.

You’re probably wondering what this all looks like in the real world, so let’s imagine a simple, end-to-end application of a blockchain system.

Wine shop A-board



Florence owns a boutique wine shop in Edinburgh. She’s passionate about wine and has built up relationships with the people behind the wines she stocks – but the supermarkets claim to be ‘independently sourcing’ their wines too, and are selling them at very competitive prices.

Florence decides to prove to her customers that she intimately knows the source of her wines, and to share this proof with them. She partners up with a blockchain specialist to create a ‘grape-to-glass’ blockchain for her wines.

Florence’s blockchain is an example of a private, or ‘consortium’, blockchain.

A few months later and the blockchain – and an accompanying app – is ready. A customer browsing Florence’s shop picks up a bottle and sees that he is able to scan the bottle with his smartphone. Immediately, he is presented with the full life cycle of this particular bottle. He is able to see that its life started out in August of the previous year, on an organic vineyard in the south of France. It was here that the grapes that went into producing the wine in the bottle were harvested, by hand.

That very same week the grapes were picked up by a transporter and delivered to a local wine press. Here, they were pressed, and the juice left to ferment into wine.

Following six months of fermentation, the product was on the move again, this time to a nearby bottling plant. After bottling, corking, labelling and packaging, the bottles – now in cases of nine – were transported to a distribution hub near Paris. Here, the case that contained the bottle in question was placed on an aeroplane destined for Edinburgh.

Once the case arrived in Edinburgh, it was transported to a local distributor and delivered to Florence’s wine shop.

Gif showing grapes, barrels and wine labelling

From grape to glass: blockchain could allow you to follow the full production cycle of your favourite tipple.

Thoroughly impressed with what he’s seen, the man decides to purchase the bottle. That evening, over dinner, he decides to show his partner the lifecycle of the bottle of wine. He proudly goes through it all again, but just as he gets to the end he realises that a new ‘block’ has been added. The blockchain has recorded his purchasing of the wine. Cheers, Florence!


Florence’s blockchain is a nifty little tool, and it’s easy to see how it might appeal to her customers. After all, transparency is big business today.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye. As one of the defining characteristics of blockchain, transparency runs throughout the length of Florence’s blockchain, and not just for the benefit of the customer. At any point along it, the peers involved – the grower, the presser, the bottler, the distributor and the retailer – can access the data in real time.

Florence’s accountants might also want in on the action. So, too, might the accountants dealing with every other peer involved, right back to the grower. The grower himself might want to include the soil inspector, who’s hired to assess his vineyard’s organic status on a regular basis. The chain could also be extended to include the bottler’s glass supplier for even fuller transparency. And what of the cork supplier? Where did the cork come from?

Man showing his partner his Blockchain app on his phone

Warning: overuse of blockchain apps may annoy the people around you.

You get the idea.

Bear with us if you think this sounds like standard supply chain management because we’re only just getting to the juicy part.

We mentioned earlier that security was the other defining characteristic of blockchain. Florence’s blockchain is an example of a private, or ‘consortium’, blockchain. Beyond having been granted access to the data, the peers involved have also been given the status of ‘colluding validators’ – that is, they are collectively responsible for validating the data fed into the chain. Every time data is added, the relevant peers involved share the job of verifying the transaction.

For example, in supplying the presser with a batch of grapes the grower creates a digital contract specifying the type, quantity and condition of the goods delivered and signs it. The presser, upon agreeing to the terms of the contract and receiving the grapes as per the terms of the contract, signs too. A version of the signed contract is published on the blockchain, timestamping the transaction.

It would be difficult, for example, for the grape presser to lie about the number of grapes he had received from the grower because this data would be visible to the entire network of peers

Remember, there is no central computer administrating the blockchain; instead, the blockchain exists on the computers of every peer, and is updated in real time, without the possibility of data being altered. All peers all have access to the same ‘version of the truth’, so to speak.

What’s more, as the whole verification process is carried out cryptographically, all transaction data is immutable. Cryptography is a method of disguising and revealing (i.e. encrypting and decrypting) information using mathematics. Blockchain relies on very complex and automated cryptography, but the basics can be grasped easily enough. Have a go yourself: The encrypted message is ‘DKIEWBXW’ and the decryption key is ‘shift each key one to the right’. Answers on a postcard, please …

Suffice it to say, blockchains are highly resistant to corruption. It would be difficult, for example, for the grape presser to lie about the number of grapes he had received from the grower because this data would be visible to the entire network of peers. Similarly, if the grower were to be stripped of his organic status, he’d have a hard time lying about it in plain sight.


Private blockchains are proving mightily attractive to the supply chain industry, and understandably so. But what about public blockchains?

It’s likely that you’re already familiar with the most famous application of public blockchain technology: cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that run on blockchains set up in a similar way to Florence’s blockchain, only they’re visible to anyone with an internet connection, not just selected peers. When Person A sends one Bitcoin, for example, to Person B, that transaction is published on the blockchain as a block and cryptographically verified. The resulting data is cannot be overwritten and is visible to anyone.

So where else can the technology be readily applied? The answer to that is any scenario where ‘property’ is transferred

Crucially, cryptocurrencies remove the need for central authorities like banks, money transfer services and other middlemen, in the same way, that a blockchain in the supply chain removes the need for physical contracts to be manually distributed and signed by relevant peers – accountants, insurers and so forth. In this light, blockchain can be considered a global decentralised source of trust.

So where else can the technology be readily applied? The answer to that is any scenario in which ‘property’ is transferred. We’ve already seen its use in the supply chain, but consider how it could affect retail loyalty schemes, copyright schemes, voting, secure access to belongings, prescription drugs, property title transfers, music royalties, taxation, equity trading, wills and inheritance – blockchain networks as yet unimagined will evolve to meet societies’ needs as the technology enters the mainstream.

It’s a reality that the opportunities afforded by blockchain are often marred by the difficulty of getting our heads around the technology in the first place. In this sense, the dawn of blockchain is remarkably similar to the dawn of the internet. Most people didn’t see – didn’t understand, even – the potential of the internet when it was in its nascent stages.

But some people did, and in doing so they changed the world.


Scanning a barcode on a wine bottle with phone

The potential uses for Blockchain are wide and varied, but not always alcohol-related.

In an era of data scandals, fake news and ad fraud, many brands are turning to blockchain to realise the potential of the technology in servicing their customers in ever-more transparent ways. Blockchain is enabling them to create fully transparent transaction records detailing how they’re handling data, delivering trustworthy news and managing digital advertising. It’s also enabling them to back up their marketing claims and practices, a bit like our Florence.

Here are some ways in which blockchain could change marketing:


Major brands are routinely slashing their advertising budgets because media agencies aren’t able to give them the transparency they need when it comes to performance figures. Blockchain can validate and analyse consumer advertising journeys, returning never-before-seen efficiency for advertisers.


It’s said that billions of pounds are languishing in dormant bank accounts. There’s a similar situation when it comes to loyalty programmes and rewards; consumers routinely misplace or forget about them. Blockchain has the potential to keep everything in nice, tidy digital wallets, and in doing so open up whole new avenues for acknowledging loyal customers.


When dealing with influencer marketers, brands can leverage blockchain’s transparency and immutability in order to validate and analyse audience engagement – provided platforms get on board.


Data is crucial for digital marketing, but its abuse has resulted in many consumers changing their behaviour and attitude towards sharing what’s theirs. Blockchain could be the saving grace, presenting consumers with open and complete records of their data and how it’s used.


Just as blockchain is allowing for greater transparency when it comes to advertising, so too is it improving relevancy for consumers. With more reliable and legitimate data on consumers, brands are able to connect with their customers in more relevant ways.


Consumers are generally more interested in how blockchain can benefit them and create greater good, not how it actually works. To this end, the technology is a breeding ground of potential brand stories that show consumers the direct social impact of their custom – whether that’s supporting independent producers or contributing to something far, far greater.

“You have to eat your own dog food”, Mark Johnston explains as we sit in the buzzing canteen of Sky Livingston HQ. With over 18 years experience working in internal comms and having managed communication within a high-street bank during the financial crash, Mark understands the importance of effective corporate communication. “I believe ten years ago you could fool people with the corporate story and shiny words, but now employees are looking for a more hands-on approach”, says Mark.

Getting employees to trust you is becoming increasingly difficult in the current economic and political climate. Research by the Edelman Trust Barometer has shown 63 per cent of survey respondents believe their CEOs are somewhat or not at all credible. The level of trust an employee holds in their company directly impacts their long term satisfaction, productivity and willingness to work overtime.

As a greater number of employers look to invest in an effective trust strategy, we asked Mark for tips on building trust through an effective communication strategy. Here’s how Mark suggests you keep those employees engaged:

  1. Don’t get lazy
  2. Read the mood
  3. Make your employees feel seen
  4. Amplify the employee voice
  5. Burst the corporate bubble


Dazzle dog food illustration


“A lot of internal comms practitioners get stuck in the old model of do a corporate piece, tell everybody about and hope they’ll read it”, says Mark. “In reality, these pieces do nothing to initiate change, generate conversation or gain trust. You want an enthused workforce who wants to read the communication, learn about their company and contribute to the conversation. Don’t rest on your laurels, innovate to captivate employees.”

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Authentic dog food illustration


Your market has a lot to do with what’s going on within your company. If your customers are unhappy with your company then your employees will be too. A poor performing company or sector suffering from eroded trust needs a specialised form of communication.

“Take the financial sector”, says Mark, “the mood is very different, with the financial crash and the ever-changing business model, you need to communicate to employees very differently. Take note from your external marketing and your company’s state of play, maintain trust through honest communication.”

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Support dog food illustration


“You need to make your employees feel like their needs are being seen,” says Mark. “I have been focusing our comms on issues faced by our employees so on a monthly basis the company is having conversations around mental health, inclusion and women’s issues. It’s more than simply transmitting ideas; it’s about getting people involved in every country and recognising the issues they face. Making people feel like individuals then earns you the right to ask them to do more. As employers, we have in our mind that mentality of ‘I’ve paid you money and now I can ask you to do whatever’, no once you gain that person’s trust and earn their respect, then you can ask for more.”

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Chat dog food illustration


“In internal comms you can set up a campaign, but what it really needs is to take on a life of its own, away from the marketing team”, says Mark. “The problem with traditional stuff like posters is they are quite static. Yes, you can make people the face of the campaign, but you are relying on employees to interact. I have set up internal social media and found this is a great way for employees to interact and air concerns. The first year we got people to share their mental health stories, and soon we found senior leaders filming themselves and sharing stories. It creates a culture where people trust each other and can share; a culture people want to be a part of.”

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Connect dog food illustration


“You have to go to the front line”, explains Mark. “Go and spend time with each division, each team has their own personality. Speak to real people to burst the corporate bubble. We often sit in offices saying we need to address Brexit, but in reality, there’s a woman in the call centre desperate for a new headset. So to prevent this division, we have regular forums where staff can talk to managers about how things can be improved. They can hold them accountable and ensure things get done”. By creating a way employees can hold you accountable, you are building trust and can ensure your employees are more than just a human resource – they are happy, engaged participants.

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Misinformation, fake news and citizen journalism have all led to a turbulent media landscape. In the age of information, many feel more misinformed than ever. But is our trepidation misplaced? According to communications agency Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer survey, the media remains the least trusted institution globally. However, despite low trust scores, the latest figures indicate the media is slowly winning back the public’s trust.

We’ve spoken to business leaders, media commentators and journalists to find out if the media is truly worthy of our trust.


Ana is a political commentator and producer on the American news show The Young Turks. Founded in response to the typically Conservative-leaning mainstream American news, the YouTube broadcast news show ranks #1 in News and Politics on the platform among the millennial audience.

“There is a great deal of credible and critically important reporting coming from mainstream news sources,” says Ana. “However, the story selections reflected in mainstream news sources tend to reveal an undeniable pro-establishment and pro-corporate bias. This is the reason why I think the emergence of independent online media is so important. Sources like The Young Turks provide a voice for the disenfranchised and the powerless. We get back to the root of why journalism exists in the first place: to hold the powerful accountable and to provide vital information so individuals can participate in our democratic process.”


Melanie is a lawyer, content strategist and owner of the social media-marketing agency Trevisan. As a business owner she finds the digital world a tool to inform many of her business decisions.

“Social media is too often dismissed as a basin brimming with trivialities, but following the right sources and companies’ contributions, especially on LinkedIn in the B2B space, can provide an invaluable resource for business news, quality insight and valuable referrals,” says Melanie. “As we see an increase in online regulation, we are noticing a material regain in the trust lost in recent times.”


Esther is the co-host of the Media Voices podcast, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world, featuring leading figures from the industry.

“Trust can take a lifetime to build and a moment to destroy,” says Esther. In a time where anyone is able to amplify their voice online, news publishers are needed more than ever to cut through the noise and build a direct relationship with readers. Only by focusing on the audience will we be able to provide high-quality, well-sourced news that really matters to people, rather than the clickbait and cheap tactics which have eroded so much trust in recent years.”


Russell is the co-founder of the Scottish Business Network, an organisation created to facilitate greater communication and connectivity between leading Scottish businesses. He describes himself as a ‘serial entrepreneur’ and regularly ranks on the UK’s most influential entrepreneurs.

“Today I view ‘media’ as press, TV, social, newsfeeds, etc. and in essence I do tend to trust what I read,” says Russell. However, I do view each through a lens tainted by my perception of the author’s own prejudice. To me, this way of interpreting what I read is no different from when I first read editorial comment in the Daily Mail and the Guardian in the 70s when the same story or ‘fact’ could be interpreted differently to meet the publications owner’s bias. Of course, I must also consider my own partiality to a particular story.

“Never forget that just because ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ was published in Britain’s highest circulation newspaper it didn’t mean it was true – fake news indeed.”


John anchors STV News and also presents the Scottish news and current affairs programme Scotland Tonight. As one of Scotland’s most prevalent journalists, he has seen many changes to the media landscape.

“The digital age hasn’t been kind to the reputation of journalism”, says John. “Reporter numbers have reduced at a time when the profession is under ever more scrutiny. The rise of the citizen journalist and blogger is poor compensation. But, as STV News demonstrates, there is still a greater demand for a daily news digest by experienced journalists than for the hit or miss of digital. Times are changing, but there remains demand for good journalism, telling stories that people want to hear. And when they are told from a Scottish perspective, that demand is all the stronger.”