A view of two ducks, taken from a wooden boat. One duck is diving for food.

Brand and the Trust Thermocline

How do you feel about getting on a Boeing airplane right now, March of 2024? Maybe not as secure as you did last year, or before the 777 stories started appearing? 10 years ago, we never gave it a thought. Air travel was (and still is) much safer than the drive to the airport. We might have been nervous about flying, but it was irrational, or it was about the pilots, not the mechanical systems of the plane. Boeing is in the process of diving through the trust thermocline.

What is the trust thermocline?

I first encountered this concept from a guy named John Bull.

It’s laid out here, with more words, by Gareth Edwards, in Slowly, Then Suddenly: How Products Fail.

Very simply, it’s the way that something feels like it’s basically ok, maybe a little scruffy, and then suddenly it’s garbage and you never want to deal with it again. You can probably think of five examples off the top of your head, things like, well, Twitter, or Boeing, or your favorite deli sandwich that gave you food poisoning that one time. When you liked something, and used it, and it was a small part of your identity or stable view of the world, but then… it’s more like a little bit of radioactive waste, and you want nothing to do with it or anything related to it.

Why is it product marketing’s problem?

Product marketing is not as amorphous a job title as “developer advocate”, but it’s not super rigid. Frequently, product marketing does things like “tell product teams how people feel about the product” and “defend the brand” and “stay alert for engagement decay”. Those are all defenses against dropping through the trust thermocline. If the sales numbers continue to go up and to the right, the people making the product and the people selling the product may not be concerned. Product marketing, on the other hand, is watching the fishing radar and saying “uh, something is weird here”.

The problem is that “something weird” is not an actionable report. If you’re embedded in the world of the customer, reading their blogs and addressing their pain points, it’s easier to tell when you’re approaching a trust boundary. The same thing is true of product support. They know when people are angry about a product, or worse, give up on a product. But neither organization has a way to report that effectively in most companies.

The best we can do is say “I think I see a problem coming” and back it up with engagement data. Engagement data is nothing compared to sales data, but it’s much more indicative of future movement.


It’s in your company’s interest to make sure you can hear warning signals, whether they come from QA whistleblowers, first-year tech support, or people who have been huffing Pantone swatches. Qualitative data is not lesser data, just different than quantitative, and sometimes much more important for reputation defense.