Trust is a big part of brand equity. It adds value to a brand over time; helps that brand maintain market share in the face of increased competition; and assists brands by ensuring consumer support in times of crisis. Because of the importance of trust in brand development and strategy, the branding industry watches for the annual Edelman Trust Barometer report to gauge consumer sentiment and make adjustments to brand positioning.
Sadly, the past few years have seen declines in trust across the entire spectrum of categories surveyed by Edelman.
Crisis in Trust
Last year, Edelman reported a historic decline in trust in government, business, media and non-government organizations (NGOs). Given the global and national political scene, it’s hardly surprising that, a year later, there has been no rebound to improved trust levels. But the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reports the largest-ever-recorded drop in trust in the U.S. Among the general population, trust dropped nine points year over year, while among the informed public, it plunged 23 points—all but eliminating the 2017 gap between the general populace and informed public.
Ain’t Nobody Trusting Nothin’
Media, for the first time, is the least trusted institution globally, with 22 of 28 countries surveyed reporting it as distrusted. Edelman noted significant trust drops for search engines and social media, but 63 percent of respondents no longer have confidence in their ability to discern good journalism from rumors and falsehoods. Disturbingly, half of people surveyed say they now interact with mainstream media less than one time per week, and one quarter say they read no media “because it is too upsetting.” Over-emphasis on hyperbolic headlines, breaking news and politics has added to the declining trust in news media. Reduced trust in reporting, and reduced interaction with media will only hasten the “dumbing-down” of an already ill-informed public.
This loss of faith in once-respected institutions is led by a steep drop in trust in government, down 14 points to 33 percent among the general populace since last year… and with a staggering 30 point drop among the informed public.
Loss of trust is also impacting on businesses and NGOs, which saw trust drop between 10 and 20 points. Trust in U.S. companies and brands dropped 5 points, the largest decline among nations surveyed. Technology businesses remain the most trusted (75%), followed by education (70%), professional services (68%) and transportation (67%). Financial services remained least trusted (54%).
One glimmer of hope is a rise in trust in corporate CEOs; CEO credibility rose seven points after several high-profile business leaders took positions on issues in the news. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change, and not wait on government. Edelman notes that this renewed trust comes with high expectations: building trust is now deemed the number one job for CEOs among 69 percent of those surveyed.
Brand: A Star to Steer By
Brands are now in a position to gain in positive perceptions… providing that they make a commitment to understanding customer perceptions, and re-dedicate their businesses to their brand values and missions. Businesses and brands that fail to properly align actions to their stated values will continue to see declines in trust and support. Agencies can assist clients by conducting brand audits to ensure positioning is strong; values are well aligned internally and in public-facing areas; and leaders present the best face of their brands to their customers and the general public.
The U.S. populace tends to seek villains and heroes in times of cultural stress. A few years ago, big corporations were tagged in the role of villain for their contributions to the Great Recession. Research has revealed that people view corporations as having intentions (often evil), but not as having feelings, so they elicit no sympathy as victims. Now brands may have an opportunity to reset perceptions and move into the hero role. Careful calibration of brand marketing and positioning could shift many brands into the “most trusted” lists. Improving internal commitment to brand values and ensuring outward behaviors align to those values could help brands become trusted leaders in an environment where there is a trust vacuum.
This year could be a very good time to conduct brand audits and help clients firm up their positioning and values. Start conversing with clients about how their brands are perceived by employees, customers and the public, and whether they might gain ground on competitors by strategically repositioning their brands. Just be sure to guide clients toward a true commitment to brand values. In our current low-trust world, being seen as manipulating perceptions rather than living up to them could be trust-eroding, not trust-affirming.