Early each year, leading global communications and marketing firm Edelman releases the results of their Trust Barometer survey. The Edelman Trust Barometer is the culmination of a global study of consumer trust in four key institutions – business, government, NGOs, and media. The newest iteration, conducted in 28 countries and encompassing more than 33,000 respondents, places a finger on the pulse of consumers across the world.
Would you be surprised to hear that in 2017 Edelman finds that “trust is in crisis around the world”? For the first time since they began tracking these metrics, “the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them.” What might be at the root of this global decline in trust in our key institutions? How can we begin to rebuild consumer trust in an authentic and sustainable manner?
Trust in Crisis
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in the media has dropped to 43 percent and reached all-time lows in 17 countries, and trust in government reached its lowest in 14 countries, standing at 41 percent in total. But it’s not just institutions that are losing the trust of the public – individual credibility has taken a hit as well. In early 2017, trust in CEOs has dropped to an all-time low of 37 percent. Business leaders shouldn’t feel too bad, though, as government officials have fallen even further, with a trust index of only 29 percent.
Why might trust be in crisis across the globe? Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman offers a bird’s eye opinion. “It began with the Great Recession of 2008,” Edelman says, “but like the second and third waves of a tsunami, globalization and technological change have further weakened people’s trust in global institutions. The consequence is virulent populism and nationalism as the mass population has taken control away from the elites.”
Another contributing factor is the polarization of the media, which has lead to increasingly self-selecting news and information diets, effectively enabling consumers to trap themselves inside the echo chamber of their choosing. In fact, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that more consumers trust search engines (59 percent) than human editors (41 percent), preferring to curate their own news rather than trust others to do it for them.
Is there any bright spot to be found in these alarming findings? If there is, it might be that of the major institutions Edelman studied, business was found to have the highest consumer confidence. As PRNewsWire reports, “Three out of four respondents agree a company can take actions to both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.” Interestingly, consumers trust fellow consumers, technical experts, and academics (60 percent each) more than CEOs (37 percent) as sources of credible information about a company.
Case Studies in Trust Damage
However, if the current crop of news stories is any indication of a trend for 2017, next year’s Edelman Trust Barometer may just set even lower records for business credibility. Two recent PR fiascos from major corporations place growing consumer distrust in business in sharp relief.
United Fails to Address Customer Concerns
Much has already been written about United Airline’s unfortunate decision to forcibly remove (or “reaccommodate”) four passengers on an overbooked flight to make room for employees. One passenger who refused to exit the plane was dragged down the aisle in an incident that was filmed on smartphones and disseminated widely online. Consumer response was swift and unforgiving, with outrage on social media spreading across the globe and stock prices falling significantly in the days following the incident.
The PR response from United has been widely criticized as “callous,” as the company at first only apologized for “having to reaccommodate… customers” and waited several days to address the brutality of the security officer’s response. When consumers witness major corporations treating others poorly, trust in that brand plummets. One crisis communications professional notes that United “disrupted a number of certainties” that their customers have come to rely on, demolishing the foundation of trust the brand had built.
Pepsi Makes A Major Marketing Gaffe
In another widely publicized incident, a Pepsi commercial that attempted to capture a cultural moment instead alienated wide swaths of consumers. The commercial, which featured a protest movement and suggested that divisive social issues might be solved by sharing soft drinks, was met with loud disapproval across the internet. It was ultimately removed within 48 hours of its release.
While Pepsi’s response was immediately apologetic and sensitive to complaints, the damage to consumer trust was already done. Instead of claiming a central place in the cultural zeitgeist, Pepsi put its foot in its mouth and demonstrated a willingness to co-opt sensitive social issues to sell soda. By so nakedly revealing its marketing machinery, the brand has turned off many potential consumers.
Can We Rebuild Trust?
It will be interesting to watch both United Airlines and Pepsi as they attempt to recapture consumer trust in the fraught current climate revealed by the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. This age of social media dialogue and empowered consumer voices creates unique challenges and opportunities for brands to build trust in their products, leadership, and impact. Watch this space for a continued exploration of ways to rebuild consumer trust in today’s divided world.