Crisis in Consumer Trust: How Can Brands Rebuild Trust?

I recently wrote about the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which revealed that trust is in crisis around the world. “The majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them,” the study found in regards to public trust in four key institutions – business, government, NGOs, and media. Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman traces the roots of the current trust deficit to the 2008 recession, asserting that the combination of technological innovation and globalization has left many consumers feeling left behind.

In this age of social media dialogue and empowered consumer voices, unique challenges and opportunities are emerging for brands that wish to build trust in their products, leadership, and impact. How can we rebuild consumer trust at a time when the world feels increasingly polarized and consumers, who are eager and able to share their opinions, nonetheless feel that major institutions no longer have their best interests at heart?

Today’s Brands Are Still Seeking Consumer Commitment

In an article published by Edelman this spring, global insight leader and Edelman COO Bob Grove shares his thoughts on how businesses can seek out consumer relationships that last. “Brands,” he writes, “are looking for consumers to buy them, stay loyal to them, advocate for them and defend them. Deeper than reach, impressions or engagement… brands are seeking commitment from consumers.” With greater choice than ever before in the array of brands available to them both online and in stores, meaningful consumer commitment has become increasingly elusive.

To analyze consumer’s relationship with brands, Edelman has developed the Brand Relationship Index, which discerns (on a scale of 0 to 100) how engaged consumers around the world are with their preferred brands. The global average comes in at 38 out of 100, indicating a prevalence of low-level “Involved” consumers. These shoppers look for brands they know and trust but do not advocate for those brands with others or take concrete actions to engage with those brands beyond looking for their products on shelves.

In order to accomplish their goals of establishing meaningful commitment from consumers, brands must take concrete steps designed to move the dial from “Involved,” at the middle of the Index, to “Invested” or “Committed” at the high end. In an age when every marketing campaign is publicly scrutinized for authenticity and impact, brands must work to rebuild consumer trust through consistency of purpose, responsiveness, and approachability.

Rebuilding Consumer Trust: From Involved to Committed

Much of the writing on consumer trust recently has focused on how to respond after a major misstep, and for good reason – from Volkswagen to Samsung to Pepsi and United Airlines, PR disasters, product mishaps, and consumer fraud have made many headlines over the past few years. However, it’s not only the company that makes the mess that suffers. When any major corporation makes a misstep, consumer trust takes a hit across the board. How can brands and businesses work to build their reputation with consumers in a climate that presents so many challenges?

Highlight Your Purpose

Purpose-driven branding isn’t a new development, but the crisis in consumer trust has revealed that brands with a greater purpose than profit fare better than those without a clear mission. Purpose doesn’t always mean charity or alignment with particular social issues – it can also flow from broader yet decisive commitments. In FastCompany, Sherry Hakimi shares the example of Google, whose purpose resonates from its stated commitment “to organize the world’s information, and make it universally accessible and useful.” Consistency of purpose helps consumers trust that “Every product that Google has developed is intended to get it one step closer to fulfilling its purpose.”

Be Responsive to Consumers

One of the pillars of consumer trust is customer service. In this arena, responsiveness is a winning strategy. Whether a particular consumer’s issue is completely resolved or not, they appreciate a quick response that lets them know that their voice has been heard. Consumer trust demands the development of a personal relationship, and customer service departments are often the key point of contact between consumers and the brands they grow to trust.

Emphasize Your Humanity

Every brand needs a relatable, human face. As I explored in a series of articles about brand representation and spokespeople, whether your brand has a charismatic leader (like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk), a professional spokesperson, or an accessible and vocal workforce, it will benefit from making a human connection with consumers. The crisis in consumer trust shows that the days of inaccessible, monolithic corporate brands are over. When they associate a real person with your brand, consumers are more likely to trust that it has human interests at heart.

Of course, when it comes to building consumer trust, consistency is key. A public relations and marketing strategy that prioritizes consistency of purpose, responsiveness, and approachability is the best first step a brand can take to establish trust with consumers. As this trust grows, brands can set themselves apart from the faceless crowd and begin to move the dial from “involved” to “committed” consumers whose trust creates a lasting relationship.

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