Insights 11/01/2020 Alastair Jones

Mind the Trust Gap

To trust is human. It forms the basis of all social engagement. Without trust there is no relationship and, as we have all experienced at one time or another, we feel betrayed and let down when trust is broken.

Whilst trust is linked to loyalty it is very different. We can be loyal to someone or something but when we trust we place a reliance on the actions of another and that person takes on the responsibility for something that is of value to us. Building trust is a process and has to be earned over time; it can take years to acquire and a moment to lose.

Trust has always been a critical factor in brand selection but it appears that whilst the currency is acquiring greater value it is, at the same time, becoming much harder to earn. As the ‘conversation’ and relationship between brands and consumers has changed over time so has the nature of the trust relationship.

There was a time when brands pretty much determined the nature of the conversation. It was top down, one way and one-to-many. It was also product driven with promises relating to quality and performance – ‘make your whites whiter’. Brands were the authority and consumers trusted them to deliver.

With the emergence of the more ‘experience’ v. ‘possession’ driven consumer and a rapidly changing media landscape the nature of that relationship quickly began to change. Consumers were offered the chance to participate, co-create and personalise. The conversation became two way and many-to-one, the relationship more equal providing a new basis for brand trust.

However, another significant shift has occurred and our relationship with brands as well as the foundation of brand trust are being redefined once again. The new basis for brand trust is cause driven and is being measured by the positive impact brands will have on people and world around them.

Studies from the likes of Accenture, Kantar and particularly the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer research suggest that consumers are increasingly belief driven. They are looking for businesses and brands to take a stand on the issues that matter to them and this is directly related to brand trust. In the Edelman study respondents cited brand trust as one of the most important considerations when making a purchase decision with 81% of respondents saying ‘I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right’.

However, there is a problem as the same study highlighted the fact that only a third of respondents actually trust the brands they buy. There a number of reasons for this trust gap. Partly driven by technology brands are making bigger promises both in terms of the product and the consumer experience but there are concerns about their ability to fulfil these commitments as well as issues around the use of personal data as part of the ‘contract’.

Perhaps more significantly though are people’s expectations of a brand’s societal and by extension environmental responsibilities. Expectations are high but consumers have become very sceptical of brands’ declared commitments in these areas as very often brand purpose has been traded as a disconnected marketing bolt-on, what Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, described as ‘woke washing’ and ‘false purpose’.

So how do brands live up to these expectations and earn trust?

Brands must now serve personal values as well as needs and create brand belief around their ‘meaningful purpose’ and the positive societal impact they want to have.

To take a stand, brands have to offer a benefit that is both relevant and credible and which is linked to the product. What the brand says has to be backed up by what the brand does, and this means applying a rigorous brand building approach to how brands can credibly deliver on the issues that matter to people and the environment. That’s why we developed our WinWinWin approach to design and innovation in order to help brands deliver a ‘virtuous’ trust circle whereby they can deliver a tangible ‘win’ for the business, consumer and environment with benefits that support ‘me, my world, the world’.

At the same time businesses also need to sort out their own ‘back yard’ before embarking on crusades. This is by no means easy and less ‘marketable’, but with supply chains also under intense scrutiny, there needs to be a solid foundation of ethical and sustainable practice at the heart of the business and in the delivery of the product. Shell, for instance, needs to first act responsibly in the management of oil and minimising their impact on people and planet, then ‘pivot’ into sustainable energy and then perhaps plant some trees. A transparent transitional strategy such as this is far more likely to build trust.

Consumers have placed the responsibility on businesses for something that is of value to them. Business and brands have a duty to bridge the trust gap and those that do will reap the benefits. The Edelman study clearly showed that when brands win trust consumers reward them. Brands need to step up and accept the responsibility, take bold steps whilst remaining within their bounds of competency and not falling into the trap of peddling ‘false purpose’.