We Need to Talk About Trust

From police forces to politicians to TV presenters, trust in the establishment has sunk to an all-time low. Mike Foster, founder and strategic creative director at Straight Forward Design, asks how brands can step into the breach.

As police struggle to abide by laws they enforce, politicians fall deeper into the mire of partygate, and TV presenters are not all they seem… where do consumers turn for a much-needed dose of trust and reliability?

The answer: brands and businesses, which now present the last bastion of trust. Businesses now hold a staggering 54-point lead over governments when it comes to perceived competence and are 30 points ahead on ethics, according to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer. Across 26 countries globally, 62% of respondents trust business – while only 50% trust government.

What’s more, government and media are seen as “sources of misleading information,” fuelling a cycle of distrust, while 48% of respondents see businesses as “a reliable source of trusted information.”

So, if business and brands are now the flag bearers for competence and ethics, how can they maximise the opportunity to step into the void left by the establishment?

“How much do you trust this brand to do what is right?”

It’s the question posed every day by Morning Consult, which asks consumers around the world to rate thousands of brands. The data shows consumer trust doesn’t change much from year to year, and it’s also a vital tool for helping brands weather scandals.

The most trusted brand in the UK, according to Morning Consult’s 2023 report, is Boots. Having been around for 170 years, it’s no surprise the retailer has created a consistent, regular presence in consumers’ lives that has helped build trust over decades. With free health MOTs for over-40s and the launch of a ‘Menopause Friendly’ symbol to help consumers identify products and services to help with symptoms, the brand is perfectly positioned to win, and retain, trust.

Is this too woke for me?

But the trust formula isn’t easily swallowed by everyone.

GenZ exhibits lower levels of trust in all industries and institutions, says Morning Consult, because they’re young consumers who require additional touchpoints to continue to build trust over time. To gain it, brands need to meet GenZ where they are, without being derided as the corporation in the room. Take Chipotle Mexican Grill’s response to a viral TikTok menu hack, where the brand partnered with creators and added to its menu, proving it was actively listening to consumers.

Of course, marketing isn’t about solely promoting the product anymore. It’s about showing up authentically in the right place, in a way that connects with how consumers feel about the world around them. Almost a third of consumers say they buy brands whose political and social values align with their own, and about a quarter of consumers boycott brands that don’t, shows Euromonitor research.

Brands will need to change course and match consumer values and behaviours – from mental health and physical wellbeing to sustainability and how they shop online – if they want to win consumer trust.

It’s easy to dismiss as low-cost tokenism or politically correct wokism, but brands who pivot to match consumer concerns can better target and relate to their audiences emotionally.

This works best if they have gradually built the capital required. Brands like Dove, with its toxic beauty campaign, and Maltesers with its Motherlover work, are driving more meaningful emotional connections with consumers by becoming more relatable and purposeful – which shows consumers what they can trust about a brand.

In brands we trust…

Yet if brands and their stated purpose are an anchor of consumer trust, they can also be a target for investor ridicule.

Having put purpose at the heart of its brands in 2018, Unilever faced backlash from fund manager Terry Smith, founder of Fundsmith Equity Fund and major Unilever investor, who last year branded the FMCG giant’s focus on sustainability and brand purpose “ludicrous”, claiming the strategy led to its “underwhelming” financial performance in 2021, and mocking the decision “to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise.”

However, research from Kantar found that brands in Unilever’s portfolio with a strong purpose were growing sales more than twice as fast as the rest. At the same time, research among Unilever employees found that in 54 of the 75 markets where it tracks staff engagement, 72% of employees said sustainability was the main reason they joined the business.

Proof that trust in business to do the right thing not only sells brands, but also creates loyal brand ambassadors.

Coming up next: Is this peak purpose? Five ways to avoid purpose jeopardy…

About the Author

Mike Foster is the strategic creative director of brand design agency Straight Forward Design, which he founded in 2008.

Having worked to revive and drive established heritage brands, while also elevating scale-up and challenger brands, Mike always sees the bigger picture. He ensures that everything the agency does is rooted in creativity, integrity, and mutuality, while client collaboration leads the Straight Forward approach.

By operating in this way, Mike creates achievable long-term goals for brands including Skittles, Wrigley’s Extra, PepsiCo, Hostess, Lockets, Squirrel, and Danone.

Read more about our work here.

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