These are strange times in the world of government and media with public trust in both institutions at an all-time low, according to global communications firm Edelman’s 18th annual Trust Barometer study. The landmark research conducted last fall surveyed 33,000 people in 28 countries and found the U.S. overall had the largest drop in trust.
“We have seen throughout the 18 years all different types of themes. The thing we saw this year was a huge crisis in trust in the U.S.,” said Jamie Kieffer, Managing Director of Client Strategy with Edelman.
The thing with trust, Kieffer noted, is it tends to be a zero sum game. Meaning when one sector is up, another is down. After the financial crisis, for example, Edelman’s trust barometer showed business took a hit while trust in government increased.
“As humans we need to trust in something so if there is a bad actor in one sector trust tends to shift,” Kieffer said.
That didn’t happen last year however as trust in the four institutions Edleman tracks - businesses, government, media and non-governmental organizations – experienced the largest drop in the U.S. of any of the 28 countries surveyed.
“There has been an absolute trust crash in the United States,” Kieffer said.
What is more troubling is when researchers looked at the 15 percent of respondents who met criteria around education, income level and media consumption to qualify as the “informed public,” trust scores were even worse.
“The more you know and seek to know the less you trust. Among this thought leading segment of the population we have the lowest level of trust of anywhere in the world. We have lost trust in every single institution,” Kieffer said.
Much of the degradation of trust is the result of the media, which sank to the lowest level ever in the survey with people no longer trusting where they get their information. The implications for retailers and brands are huge because trust has long played a key role in shoppers’ decisions about which retailers to frequent and which brands to buy.
“If you are feeling an undertow it is real,” Kieffer said earlier this year when he shared key insights from the trust barometer research with senior brand and retail executives in attendance at the annual Path to Purchase Summit in Chicago. There are three key areas where the issue of trust can be addressed, including:
Own your story: In a world of low trust businesses and brands can be the answer, according to Kieffer, but the way stories are told has to be different than it was in the past.
“If you think you are powerless as a business in a world of little trust nothing could be further from the truth,” Keiffer said.
The key is to tell stories from a position of authenticity as opposed to marketing because people see right through marketing, an interesting admission coming from a career marketer with more than 20 years experience on the agency side with Leo Burnett and more recently on the client side. Kieffer joined Edelman, a highly respected communications firm, in the fall of 2015.
There is a realization that people know they are living in bubbles, but that has given rise to a demand for technical experts, which means opportunities for brands.
“Tell your stories, tell them rigorously and clearly and make sure they are accessible. Don’t just tell stories and put them on your web page, bring your storytelling to the world and become your own media company,” Kieffer advised.
Engage on your terms: Closely correlated to owning your story, engaging on your terms means looking at communication channels currently in use and recognizing the sources of information trusted today are very different.
“Look at the channels you are currently using and ask the question, ‘where do people want to hear from you?’ What you will find is people almost two to one will believe your social media over your advertising,” Kieffer said. “People want to hear from your leadership and even more importantly they want to hear from your employees.”
The best thing to do is prioritize social over advertising and let the CEO, other senior executives and front line employees speak.
“Time and again we feel there is no better spokesperson for a company than a well-informed employee. There are folks who bleed whatever color your logo is. Find them and engage them,” Kieffer said.
Take a stand and do something: Potentially one of the trickiest areas of trust, Edelman’s research shows that more than ever consumers believe brands can do more to solve social ills. Keiffer called that finding “kind of crazy,” because it is a shift in expectations around the role of government and brands.
“Governments were created for the purpose of solving social ills and brands are commercial enterprises that are supposed to make money for shareholders. That is the opportunity,” Keiffer said. “People are expecting brands to do things to solve social ills and they are buying or boycotting brands based on the stand brands take on social issues.”
For example, Millenials are the first generation ever that says they will take less money to work for a company that shares their values and they are applying a similar mindset to their spending behavior.
Of course, playing it safe on issues and doing nothing is always an option and brands likely won’t see an immediate impact, but they are also likely over time to end up in a place Kieffer called, “no brand’s land.”
The risk from such an approach that might actually be perceived as safe is greater risk if competitors are more vocal and active about their beliefs and rewarded by shoppers.
“People want to financially reward companies for doing the right thing because we live in a world where trust is a scarce commodity,” Kieffer said. “This is not about chasing issues. Don’t chase issues, find your calling.”
The latter means having an authentic position based on beliefs. That’s what Chobani founder, Turkish immigrant and entrepreneur Hamdi Ulukay did when he started his company, hired people who happened to be immigrants and paid a living wage.
“He did not say immigration is going to be my issue. He built a company based on values of giving back, treating people with respect and doing a lot of charitable work. When immigration came up as an issue, he had a point of view on it, but he was speaking on it based on the values of his company,” Kieffer said.
People could agree or disagree on the issue of immigration, but Ulukay didn’t start by picking an issue, taking a position and then risk losing half his customers. He spoke about the values and benefits he saw from treating immigrants with respect, according to Kieffer.
“When you find your calling, it’s not about giving up all your profits and becoming a charity,” Kieffer said. RL