Brands: on what conditions do consumers trust them?

Today’s consumers expect a brand to deliver far more than just a good product or service. Brands are now expected to produce it in the “right” way, too. Learn more about consumer trust from Marion Darrieutort, CEO of Elan Edelman, which publishes an annual Trust Barometer.

Marion Darrieutort_Elan Edelman

Consumer trust is central to brands calling themselves “client centric”. Is this a trend or a real business issue?

Marion Darrieutort : It is not just on-trend; it is a fundamental trend. Consumers expect brands to go beyond product or service delivery. They want them to be socially engaged. Our latest report on trust: “In Brands We Trust?”, shows that 65% of consumers are willing to boycott a brand for its social position, and encourage their peers to do the same. This has gone beyond the notion of consumers as customers into the realm of consumers as citizens. To stay in business, brands must become “client centric” and even “society centric”.

For 20 years, Edelman has published the Trust Barometer, which surveys consumers in 28 countries through the perspective of trust. What have been the significant changes since the early 2000s?

M. D. An increasingly marked distrust of institutions, governments and the media. In the age of globalisation, we no longer believe in their ability to listen to citizens and proactively bring about progress. On the other hand, trust in companies is increasing year on year. They understood that taking their customers’ expectations into account is imperative to the way they do business.

Is this trust in companies expressed in the same way regardless of business sector?

M. D. According to our Barometer, technology, transport and retail sectors generate the highest trust scores. These are the ones that became socially committed earliest, and also the ones that communicated about it. Conversely, food and finance perform less well but even they are making progress. The Ferrero group, for example, is thinking about responsibly sourced palm oil and starting to communicate about it in its charter.

Is a brand's ethical position more important than the product or service they sell?

M. D. No, because consumers still want a flawless product experience (88% of respondents in our Barometer) and 53% expect an excellent customer experience. To gain their trust, companies must act at all levels and above all ensure coherence between their messaging, actions and products, as part of an authentic and sincere approach.

Can you name an example of a company whose inconsistent attitude has had a negative impact on trust?

M. D. In the UK, at Gay Pride 2019, a major food brand launched an “LGBT” sandwich wrapped in a rainbow flag. The brand wasn’t known for supporting this cause and it was strongly criticised for its opportunistic communications campaign.

What are the best practices for winning and maintaining a customer's trust?

M. D. First of all, being great at what you do already: product or service quality remains fundamental. Then, don’t make too many promises: define one or two and keep them. Far too many brands jump on the bandwagon of whatever cause is grabbing the headlines, and go off in all directions, thereby losing all credibility. You have to be legitimate about the subject you’re committed to, so that it resonates with the company’s business activity. The third thing is traceability: the company must publish a roadmap detailing its actions and timeline, and report on progress in an honest and transparent way.

Aren’t brands tempted to manipulate customers to direct their expectations?

M. D. Companies are increasingly analysing “weak signals”, mainly on social media, to anticipate actions and guide conversations with customers. Rather than being dictated to, brands are taking the lead and becoming activists alongside consumers.

In this search for trust, are some brands forced to make decisions that go against their economic strategy?

M. D. Some companies have to make tough decisions, which sometimes means making a difficult business commitment in order to become more socially acceptable. In the USA, a large pharmacy chain decided to stop selling cigarettes, a business activity which generated the largest share of its profits. Its leaders wanted to anticipate criticism from consumers. Companies are increasingly aware of the risks of “woke washing”: what they say has to be backed up with concrete actions.