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How do you gain brand trust in a society full of distrust?

We live in a world where distrust penetrates every corner of our lives. The 2020 Edelman Trust report, published last month, revealed that the majority of the global population trust none of the big four societal institutions (government, business, NGOs and media), a shocking revelation considering these institutions are the unequivocal fabric of most societies. 

Yet in many ways, it’s no wonder that trust is in such a dire state. In a world increasingly dominated by fake news, misleading political campaigns and a different ‘scandal’ each month, suspicion and skepticism have become not just the norm but a necessary coping mechanism. The Edelman Trust report found a staggering 76% worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon. The anxiety is real. 

Unsurprisingly, this large-scale erosion of trust has made it increasingly difficult for brands to foster and maintain a trusting relationship with their customers. A quick search for ‘brand trust’ on Google returns multiple articles aimed at coaching marketers through the elusive process of rebuilding diminishing trust in their brand. This is because brands that strive to earn consumer trust are paid dividends in increased purchases, customer advocacy and loyalty. As WARC argues, brand trust is one of the most valuable intangible assets in any business.

Easy to lose and hard to earn.

However, the old adage that trust is easy to lose and hard to earn is true. The cost of trust violations is well documented from brands that suffer diminished loyalty, unfavourable word of mouth and fewer repeat purchases. For instance, Australian banks are still feeling the fallout from a year-long inquiry that revealed wrongdoing and unlawful practices rife across the sector, including charging fees to the accounts of the deceased. The lack of remorse shown by any of these banks has paved the way for challenger brands – specifically neo banks such as Volt – who provide an alternative, values-based option for consumers who have otherwise lost all faith in the system. 

As a result, there are countless examples of reactive ‘apology’ campaigns where brands scramble together all of their marketing resources into trying to make amends with (usually p*ssed off) consumers. Following the revelation that Wells Fargo had been setting up fake accounts in their customers’ names in 2016, they launched their ‘Re-Established’ campaign, in an attempt to convince everyone that they were back on the straight and narrow. However, much to Wells Fargo’s disdain, brand trust and loyalty continued to drop following the launch of the campaign. In fact, it wasn’t until CEO Timothy Sloan stepped down that they saw an uplift in brand loyalty figures. This neatly illustrates one of the most important lessons trust-deprived businesses must learn: lip service does nothing, you have to practice what you preach. 

Indeed, at the Consumer Technology Association in Las Vegas, Tuula Rytilä, corporate vice president for Microsoft Digital Stores, told delegates, “[Trust is] not like a marketing campaign that you run … It actually is something that has to be in your culture. You have to make it concrete in your products. And then you get to talk about it to your customers.”

The trust watershed moment.

A few years after the Wells Fargo scandal, news broke that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes. The scandal has been described as a watershed moment in the public understanding of personal data – it was momentous enough for Netflix to make a feature film about it – and since then there has been considerable debate about how much personal data companies should reasonably have access to. In response, some brands have taken action to address privacy concerns. In early January,  Google Chrome revealed plans to end support for third-party tracking cookies within two years, as part of its commitment to user privacy.

Yet research from Google revealed that over half of US consumers are still interested in a personalised shopping experience (read our blog post about hyper-personalisation from 2018). The caveat is that they are only willing to share personal information if they’re getting value in return, which includes time-saving, discounts and surfacing the right product at the right time. So it’s all about showing value exchange, which is arguably a fundamental way to rebuild trust with consumers around their privacy.

It also highlights that as marketers we can’t solely focus on the tech at our disposal. In the Preface to ‘Lemon’, Orlando Wood asserts, ‘A golden age for advertising technology has not translated into a golden age for advertising’, because the focus has drifted away from creativity. Wood argues that we should put the emphasis back on creativity to generate ads that move people because long-term memories are formed through an emotional response. This means that any emotional associations with the brand created by its advertising will stay with us so if we want to foster trust it’s important we produce creative work that embeds associations of ‘trustworthiness’ in the long-term memories of our customers.

Be human.

One of the most effective ways to convey ‘trustworthiness’ to consumers is to ‘humanise’ the brand. Research has shown if brands demonstrate more human-like behaviours and treat their audience more like humans than customers, people are more likely to develop strong emotional bonds to the brand therefore reinforcing those important long-term memory structures. 

The top five emotional attributes most likely to drive perceptions of brand humanity are: responsive, social, friendly, thoughtful and helpful, and the number one functional attribute is ‘Speaks like a regular person would’. A frequently quoted yet pertinent example of a brand that embodies these characteristics is Innocent Smoothies. On social, they add value to their followers, not by offering promotions or product recommendations, but by providing a bit of light relief to people’s days (their strategy is literally to ‘chat nonsense all day’). A quick scroll through the comments on their recent posts shows they’re a brand that clearly recognises the importance of remembering that behind every customer is a human that likes to be spoken to as such. And this is reflected by their engagement numbers and the number of long-term ‘top fans’ who happily chat with Innocent like they’ve been friends for years.

Once the emotional bond between human and brand has been formed, it’s likely that even when things go wrong they are more likely to be forgiven. It’s even more likely if the brand holds up its hands and says ‘I’m sorry’. Take the KFC ‘FCK’ ad, which went viral after it was published due to issues with KFC’s suppliers which led the chain to run out of chicken in hundreds of UK restaurants. While KFC openly took responsibility for the situation, the ingenious defacement of their logo reflected the brand’s playful personality and won the brand forgiveness from the nation.

‘Too perfect’ is less favourable.

In fact, things going wrong isn’t always a bad thing. Brands that are perceived as ‘too perfect’ are less likely to be thought of favourably by consumers because they come across as ‘less human’. This is explained by a principle of behavioural economics called The Pratfall Effect, discovered by Elliot Aronson in 1966. Arnson conducted an experiment where college students were asked to rate the likeability of an actor answering a series of quiz questions. One group of students watched the actor score a near-perfect 92%, while the other group saw the actor answer the same number of correct questions then stand-up and spill coffee on himself. Aronson discovered that the students found the clumsy contestant more likeable because the blunder increased his approachability and made him ‘more human’. So a key challenge for brands is one that most of us will actually be familiar with – accepting your flaws and owning them. 


Therefore while diminishing brand trust can be incredibly disheartening, there’s no better time to pause and reflect on how your brand presents itself to the world, and most importantly how it speaks to consumers. There’s a huge opportunity for brands to use creativity to humanise the brand and connect with customers in a way that’s authentically human. After all, we’re all living, breathing, feeling humans who, in this age of fake news, lying politicians and privacy scandals, quite frankly deserve better.

  • 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer report
  • WARC, ‘What we know about brand trust’, Mar 2019
  • Marketing Dive, ‘How Wells Fargo finally increased brand approval after several failed attempts’, May 2019
  • WARC, ‘Microsoft’s focus on brand trust’, Feb 2020
  • Think With Google, ‘You don’t just need personalization - you need the right personalization’, Jan 2020
  • Karmarama, ‘Brand Nirvana: Closing the human experience gap’, 2019
  • Braze, ‘How human is your brand?’, 2018
  • The Drum, ‘Why Innocent Drinks decided to get blue and argumentative on social’, 29 Nov 2019

By Abi Stocker

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