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Brands: We Trust Them, We Trust Them Not

Published on February 25, 2020, at 7:22 p.m.
by Faith Saucier.

Brands: They’re product innovators, customer service experts, competent doers and, now, catalysts for change.

Today, they are expected to take a stand, to make a difference, to be positive players in society. Corporations are trusted — more than the government, in fact. But this new concept of trust is one that brands have never seen before.

It’s not about hopping on the bandwagon or spouting out a tear-jerking commercial. It’s an opportunity to take action on issues that align with your company’s values; a chance to expand on your company’s purpose; and a clear path to building better, stronger and longer-lasting relationships with your consumers.

Simply put, it’s an opportunity that brands should not pass up.

Consumers aren’t sure that they can trust brands to do the right thing for society, according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report. Product-based considerations remain the dominant trust factor

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

for brands, with only 38% of consumers reporting trust in brands based on their societal impact. David Bersoff, Edelman Intelligence SVP of global thought leadership, said the imbalance arises from a concept called trust-washing, “when brands go out there with grand gestures, or anthems, or tear-jerking ads, but there’s nothing behind it.”

Trust-washing only leaves room for doubt, and according to Bersoff, there’s only one way to overcome the cynicism that we see in consumers today: “to actually follow through, and to follow through over the long term.”

Consumers aren’t going anywhere — along with their expectations — and they aren’t the only ones increasing pressure on businesses to act. According to the Aflac Corporate Social Responsibility Report in 2019, 74% of investors agree that large companies have a special responsibility for making the world a better place — a responsibility that is even more important than profits.

Catherine Blades, Aflac’s SVP, chief ESG and corporate communications officer, has seen a huge uptick of pressure from the investor community in the past year. “This isn’t going away,” said Blades. “This isn’t a moment; it’s a movement.”

Quite the movement it is. In 2020, the crusade continues, and brands must fall in line. Experts have discovered that trust is a balance that takes smart decision-making and an abundance of due diligence to maintain.

On the one hand, it’s a balance between purpose and profit. “It has to be about profit and purpose,” said Blades. “It has to be purpose that is authentic and aligned to a company’s values. But if a company isn’t making money, they aren’t going to have money in which to go out and do good in the first place. It’s going to take companies making decisions about what works best for their business, their employees and all of their stakeholders.”

On the other hand, it’s a function of competence and ethics. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that consumers see businesses as competent, but not terribly ethical. Bersoff also noted, “If we look at more trusted companies versus less trusted companies, ethics is a three times more powerful driver, or predictor, of trust than competence.”

Your company’s ability to produce a quality product or service still matters. All businesses must have a baseline competence, otherwise they would be unable to operate. But your company’s ethics are what sets your brand apart.

“You don’t get to be a viable company that’s worth measuring if you don’t already have some level of competence,” Bersoff said. “But ethics is the true battleground of brand differentiation when it comes to trust.”

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

It’s the battleground of belief-driven buying — the idea that a major purchasing consideration is based on brands taking a stand, or not taking a stand, on issues that matter to consumers. “The idea here is that people don’t leave their ideology outside when they walk into a grocery store or department store,” said Bersoff. “They carry that ideology in there with them.”

With that ideology comes an expectation to see and hear about what brands are doing to make a difference. According to Blades, 55% of consumers stated that companies should make their purpose a key component of their overall messaging, and she wants communicators to start talking. “All of the data tell me that basically if you’re not talking about purpose every chance you get, you’re really missing an opportunity with the majority of the market,” said Blades.

Bersoff also asserted the extreme importance of being a values-oriented, purpose-driven brand. “Being a values-oriented brand in a world where values matter more, and more people are belief-driven buying, is an opportunity to develop strong, lasting relationships that serve as insurance that your brand will still prosper in the face of disruption in the marketplace.”

That’s right, brands, your values matter. Your purpose matters. Your moral core matters. Most importantly, your actions matter.

For PR practitioners, it’s our job to help our clients and companies identify these core values and live by them every single day. It’s our job to tell our stakeholders about the commitments we successfully reached. It’s our job to encourage action that follows words.

For brands, an increase in trust won’t happen overnight, and there aren’t many brands that enjoy trust based on their societal impact. If you want your brand to be one of the first, start now. Live and die by your values, follow up with action, and get ready to enter the promised land of consumer trust.

According to Bersoff, “The brands that get out in front of this — the brands that build that kind of trust — are going to have longer, stronger relationships with their customers. Those customers are going to be more likely to be loyal to them, to defend them, to advocate for them, and even help them innovate and help the success of new products they put out into the marketplace.”

That is the kind of trust brands live for — trust that will make your brand stronger, bolder and more successful in the long run.


  1. Post comment

    This is the finest piece of student-authored writing I’ve seen in a long while. Maybe ever. Clear, logical, well-sourced and operating at a level worthy of working public relations professionals. Kudos to the author, and staff of Platform magazine.


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