What does it mean for consumers to trust a brand? It seems straightforward. However, brand trust is complex and nuanced. It is interconnected with many other business and marketing constructs and has multidirectional effects on the consumer-brand relationship.
Brand trust is an outcome resulting from reliability and positive experiences.
Consumers want brands to deliver on promises and they want to have good experiences with the brand. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers want brands that are sincere, compassionate, and not focused on making money. If brands deliver, brand trust is developed. This is not too dissimilar from interpersonal trust. We also desire reliability, pleasant experiences, and empathy from others. Trust is an outcome that results from having these expectations met consistently.
Trust is a core brand attribute.
In addition to trust being an outcome, trustworthiness is also an intrinsic characteristic or attribute. You may describe your best friend as a trustworthy person. Likewise, consumers consider the relative trustworthiness of brands. Brands aspire to be symbols of trust in the eyes of consumers and to that end, market researchers commonly measure how much trustworthiness consumers attribute to brands.
Brand trust drives loyalty and purchase behavior.
Measuring consumers’ perceptions of trustworthiness is important because brand trust is an essential driver of loyalty and purchase decisions. Although brand trust is an outcome of consumer-brand relationships and brand trust contributes to the essence of a brand, perhaps the most important role is its impact on the bottom line.
BRAND TRUST DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
During the COVID-19 pandemic people have shifted their daily living from being largely on automatic pilot to a state of hyper-awareness. It appears that everyone seems to be tuning in to the same daily statistical reports related to COVID-19, including information on infection rates, death rates, economic (disaster) news, and latest announcements on business re-openings, social distancing, and the wearing masks in public. Despite this hyper-awareness and collective tuning in, there is a great amount of confusion and mistrust. Against this backdrop, brands are also being judged critically.
Evidence for this critical judgment of brands during the pandemic can be found in the recently published “2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.” The “2020 Edelman Trust Barometer” is based on a large international Web survey of 12,000 consumers in 12 countries in March 2020. Initial findings include the following:
These findings demonstrate that consumer perception of brand performance during this time can make or break brand trust.
BUSINESSES MUST ACT FAST AND MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES
Most of us are avoiding unnecessary risk to ourselves and others by limiting our exposure to other people. As we isolate at home for the public good, personal trust is limited to those we know. Similarly, many consumers, almost two-thirds (60%), are now relying on the brands they know and trust. Absolute trust during the pandemic will come from either a pre-existing foundation of brand trust or the establishment of new trust. Based on the Edelman (2020) study, more than one-third (37%) of consumers started using a new brand because of its innovative or compassionate response to the coronavirus outbreak. This is a time when some brands are earning consumer trust by their actions.
Time is a critical factor and the speed with which businesses (and government entities) usually conduct strategic planning or launch into action has diminished drastically. Some consumers have already started punishing brands that have not responded well. In March 2020, one third (33%) of consumers reported they have started convincing others to stop using brands that they believe responded poorly to the pandemic (Edelman, 2020). This suggest that businesses risk destroying brand trust through missteps if they do not act fast and act appropriately.
The actions and inactions of businesses are testing consumer trust of brands. If consumers perceive brands as putting profits before people during the crisis, there will be significant and possibly irreparable damage to brand trust. Most consumers (71%) reported that brands would lose their trust forever if they put profits ahead of people during the pandemic (Edelman, 2020).
While the capacity for consumers to forgive a focus on profit over people during this time is diminished, the extent to which poor decisions will have lasting effects is unknown. For example, we could expect that damage to brand image and trust would be significant for large public corporations that received SBA funds and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money intended for much smaller businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Furthermore, the impact of poor decision-making may have more lasting effects with younger consumers. In the recent publication “Most Trusted Brands 2020,” Morning Consult reported on a large-scale study of over 2000 brands. One important finding demonstrates that younger Americans (Gen Z and Millennials) are more skeptical of brands and hold them to a higher ethical standard.
While brand trust has always been a valuable intangible asset, the COVID-19 pandemic has put people in a hyper state of awareness and responsiveness. Businesses no longer have the luxury of drawn out strategic planning. They must act fast to maximize this opportunity for building brand trust and to minimize any missteps in response to the virus outbreak. It is clear that all businesses will have to work harder than ever to engender trust among consumers.
What are some of the key takeaways for business?
MEASURE, MODEL, AND STREGTHEN BRAND TRUST
Measuring and addressing drivers of trust and mistrust are key to brand success. At the minimum, businesses should know their baseline measurement of brand trust with consumers. At Q2 Insights, it is standard operating procedure to measure brand trust along with other brand attributes.
Beyond baseline measurement of brand trust, Q2 Insights recommends tracking and modeling the key drivers of trust and mistrust. Brand trust is complex, nuanced, and highly interconnected with other tangible and intangible variables.
We help clients understand which elements comprise overall trust in their brand and we measure how strongly those elements drive trust. For example, clients need to know the degree to which reliability, perceived competency, perceived authenticity, brand experiences, and reputation for corporate responsibility all account for brand trust. This allows businesses to increase brand trust as an outcome by addressing areas that can be improved. We also help clients understand the role that brand trust plays as a driver of other outcomes, such as brand loyalty and purchase behaviors.
At Q2 Insights, we believe strategies for developing and strengthening brand trust are best executed with the aid of customized, market research. A critical examination of the brand-consumer relationship within this pandemic economy is warranted.
The adage that “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair” has never been more true. Understanding the “trust gap” will be critical to businesses as they determine how hard they must work to retain trust.
This article was adapted from a conversation between Kirsty Nunez, George Murphy, and Evette Joyce, frequent collaborators on marketing strategy and insights projects for their clients around the globe. Kirsty is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego. George leads Seattle-based marketing strategy firm Modo Group. Evette is a Research Strategist at Q2 Insights. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to Kirsty at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or firstname.lastname@example.org.