By Chris Warren
While there are signs that the pandemic may be ebbing, the devastating effects of the coronavirus in 2020 will be felt for years to come. The impact on the nation’s health, economy, and psychological makeup has been stark and the full extent is still uncertain. Against such a precarious backdrop, it’s little wonder that the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed a troubling lack of trust in all four institutions tracked: government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The dearth in trust is being fueled by what Edelman describes as a “rampant infodemic,” crystallized by the fact that a majority of people don’t know where or whom to go to for reliable information.
The latest report, based on an online survey of more than 33,000 respondents in 28 countries, reflects a distrust — bordering on antipathy — for traditional institutions and the information they proffer. For example, nearly 60 percent of respondents believe that journalists and spokespeople for government and business purposely espouse falsehoods to mislead people.
“I think this year’s report reflects the long-term trend of the erosion in trust in institutions but also the erosion of trust in spokespeople and societal leaders,” says Tonia Ries, executive director of intellectual property at Edelman, who oversees the development of the Trust Barometer. “I think the data really reflects an unprecedented year on top of some long-term trends that are more systemic and structural.”
Business Most Trusted Institution
Edelman is not alone pointing to a deterioration of trust. According to a recent report by data consulting company Kantar, the sheer volume of paid media and aggressive use of consumer data have contributed to eroding trust in advertising.
For instance, Kantar discovered that more than half of consumers found advertising based on their past online activity to be intrusive, although younger people (18- to 34-year-olds) found it less grating. A total of 71 percent of respondents criticized the frequency of advertising.
Kantar has developed a trust score that ranks the level of trust people have in the medium from which they receive information about brands. At the top of the ranking is friends and family. Advertising is at the bottom.
While the results of Edelman’s research show a profound lack of trust in society’s ability to tackle big challenges, one institution did fare notably better than others, as trust in business actually increased and business replaced NGOs as the most trusted institution. Business is also the only institution viewed by respondents as both competent and ethical.
The level of trust people have in their own employers is even higher than for businesses as a whole. Although there is near-universal distrust in the veracity and motivation of all information sources, companies and organizations are seen as more credible.
According to the Edelman Barometer report, 61 percent of respondents said they believe communications from their employers either automatically or after seeing the information reported by other sources, such as traditional media outlets or government agencies.
Great Expectations for Brands
While trust in business and company leaders is comparatively high, the results from the latest Edelman Barometer indicate that society expects much more from the private sector.
More than 60 percent of respondents believe CEOs should lead in solving problems governments don’t fix and should also be held accountable to the public — not just to their boards of directors and shareholders. “The mandate has expanded outside the swim lane of what most traditional CEOs are comfortable with,” Ries says.
However, the results also raise many questions for CMOs and marketers tasked with developing and executing communications strategies. How should brands evolve their marketing and advertising to cultivate trust? How should companies communicate what they are doing to address some of the foundational and structural problems people increasingly expect them to tackle?
For Angela Lee, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, there already exists a reservoir of consumer goodwill that companies can build on. “Companies are already where many people are looking for equal opportunity and nondiscrimination and diversity,” Lee says. “In the last 10 years companies have become more aware they have this responsibility.”
For marketers, the challenge moving forward is to accurately portray how their company is taking action and share how the results benefit society.
“Whatever the company does, it’s up to the company to convey to the world, ‘This is what we are doing,’” Lee says. “In terms of how it affects marketers, there are companies that can use their ethical practice as a positioning strategy. It just has to be real and transparent.”
Indeed, Ries believes that marketers have to be careful not to engage in what she refers to as “trust washing,” or what happens when there is a gap between what a company says it is doing and the reality. “The danger is if you’re just saying that you’re doing a bunch of things but there’s no real commitment behind them,” she says. “Action has to come first.”
Employees As Brand Stewards
The Edelman report highlighted employee communications as the most trusted of all sources of information. For marketers, this gives license to build trust and influence a potentially large audience that includes employees’ families and friends and the communities in which they live.
Brands could also blur the lines between internal and external communications. “I had a conversation with one company recently that has started taking its internal memos and communications and sharing them publicly on its website,” Ries says. “People will find it more credible because why would you lie to your employees?”
At The Hershey Co., for instance, communicating with employees has been crucial during COVID-19. “Our employees let us know that the company was a trusted source of news and information about the pandemic and it was important to communicate frequently across conversations related to their physical, emotional, and economic well-being,” says Allison Kleinfelter, director of commercial and corporate brand communications at The Hershey Company.
The candy company now reaches out to its employees every other week to share resources for mental and physical health and update workers on the company’s COVID-related efforts.
Hershey has also tapped people in-house to be the voice of its brand. “Through our corporate brand, we focus on storytelling through the voices of our employees,” Kleinfelter says.
She adds, “In the past year, they have written blogs or social content that shares everything from being on the front lines at retail to mentoring and development to experiences for women and people of color. Authenticity and humility are most important.”
Tapping into the employee experience is a way for companies to show the embodiment of the brand in a way that escapes a 30- or 60-second ad.
“There’s a line between self-congratulatory [types of] communications and sharing your story of challenges, learnings, progress, and reflection,” Kleinfelter says. “When a company consistently demonstrates how it acts on its values and beliefs, trust is built. This is less about advertising it and more about observable action.”