Repairing Consumer Trust is the Only Way Forward

By Clayton Southerly, Alter Agents

Strong relationships are built on trust. That’s true between your friends, it’s true between your neighbors, and it’s true in your businesses. It’s also true when we talk about the relationship between buyer and seller, who often come together as strangers. If they’re going to buy a product or service, the consumer needs to have at least some trust in the seller and their brand.

But today’s consumers are finding it harder to trust anyone, any brand, and, frankly, anything at all. Public health uncertainty, economic vulnerability, and rampant misinformation have left the population hesitant to place trust in people or institutions that were once taken for granted. Data from the final report in our year-long research series on consumer anxiety in the United States shows that 62% of consumers say that they find it hard to trust other people, including 71% of Gen Z. Just a third of Americans told us they trust the federal government. Most say that those in power don’t have the country’s best interests in mind.

Our findings line up pretty well with Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, which found that public trust is declining to new lows after a horrid year and that a crisis of leadership is feeding the problem. Like our findings, their data also shows that businesses are becoming, with exceptions, the most trusted institutions in public life as they fill the vacuum left as social and institutional norms shift and fail. So if businesses are the bright spot in a dusky trust landscape, what opportunities do marketers have to seize business momentum and do a whole lot of good in the process?

Be Authentically Honest

In general, building back consumer trust is in everyone’s interest. It’s good for society, it’s good for democracy, and it’s very good for brands and their bottom lines. For our research on consumer anxiety, we spoke to economist Peter Atwater, an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary credited with popularizing the idea of the K-shaped recovery. He told us that when consumers feel vulnerable, they tend to scrutinize everything more closely, including brands and purchases. They need reassurance. They need to trust. Gaining that trust means being “almost nakedly authentic,” he said.

When consumers feel the way they do now, it’s time to drop the spin and speak on the level. People are usually very good at picking out half-truths, dodges, and lies. If there’s a time to seize the momentum and show how your brand is being frank and owning up to any potential missteps, it’s now. Your audience is searching for honesty, so give it to them straight.

Take the time to understand what your customers (and employees!) are going through, acknowledge that hardship, and make a plan to address their challenges. Consumers are more willing to trust a brand that demonstrates that it cares about people over dollars, especially if they see that brand as an ally in their own struggles.

And take a hard look at your own business operations and messaging. Make sure that your actions show that you actually are prioritizing the issues you claim to care about. If consumers are primed to scrutinize you more, do not give them the chance to catch you in an embarrassing or hypocritical position.

Be part of the recovery

Living your brand values may mean having difficult conversations with your clients, customers and the public. Be proactive and candid about these communications, and build partnerships with your audiences that are grounded in trust. Take action that makes a difference and reassures your audiences that you are a part of the solution when it comes to their concerns and fears.

The world took a real beating over the past year or so. We argue in our report that coming back from all of it is a whole-of-society effort. That means that every person, in every one of their roles from brands to the government to neighbors, needs to give their partners, friends, and strangers reason to trust them. If people are looking to companies for responsible leadership, then it’s time to give it to them – and build a good, solid, trusted brand while we’re at it.

Author bio:

Clayton Southerly is the Marketing Communications Manager at Alter Agents (, a boutique market research consultancy based in Los Angeles. He asks the big questions, using custom research and executive-level information products to build brands better. He loves fostering relationships, and his empathic approach helps him make these partnerships stronger through the work he delivers. When he’s not delivering thoughtful insights, Clayton enjoys sitting on the beach, food, and traveling.