One of our key trends this year is the Search for Simplicity and Control – and this is where, in a confusing and complex world, brands remain vital for consumers. Eighty per cent of people across the world believe that “there is so much contradictory information it’s hard to know who to trust”. People are overwhelmed by the choices – big and small – that are facing them every day. Despite scepticism about big business, 65% feel “brands I trust are more important than ever to me”. Brands remain useful mental shortcuts, helping us navigate the bewildering choices available to us.
Nearly three-quarters (73%) say they are more likely to trust a new product if it is from a brand they already know. Above all, consumers see branded products and services as signs of consistent quality (globally at 50%) and reliability (48%).
Of course, before the internet and a proliferation of channels, brands were more in control of their image and message – our impressions of them came from their carefully constructed communications, their literal branded products. The internet has had a democratising effect, with consumers challenging them at every turn. A proliferation of contradictory sources has, in part, contributed to the phenomena of ‘post-truth’ – 2016’s word of the year – where no one owns the truth and where the presence of ‘multiple truths’ and ‘alternative facts’ have exacerbated cynicism about the organisations that serve the public. In this time of uncertainty, ‘facts’ are often less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.40
Of course, marketers know the value of emotion. Over the course of the last thirty years we have seen a shift in advertising towards emotional appeals at the expense of facts. The change has been subtle: many adverts are still based on tactical offers and claims of superior features – “washing whiter”, “going faster”, “living well for less”. But while rational appeals have a strong short-term impact on the public, all our evidence concurs with the findings in Binet & Field’s The Long & the Short of It,41 that building emotional connections is the key to long-term performance, exemplified by brands and campaigns from John Lewis, Dove, Coca-Cola, Nike and Guinness.
But trust underpins all of this. Brands provide a promise or guarantee to customers about what to expect from the product or service they’re about to buy. It may simply be a promise of low prices, rather than quality, but it should offer something consistent (even if it is consistent innovation). Our latest global data shows that brand trust is most important in two categories: high investment products like smartphones, cars and household appliances and those that affect people’s well-being such as food or personal health products. However, trust can be easily destroyed – it is vital that companies and brands ensure what they promise is what people experience.
But while plenty of critics will say brands are more challenged than ever, in fact globally most consumers say they trust businesses to deliver on their promised standards of goods and services (57%). There is plenty of room for improvement, and huge variation by sector, but global businesses operate to much higher standards today than in the past. Consumers still have rising expectations of how businesses should behave generally in society, as Marloes Klop explores earlier in Crisis of the Elites.
In terms of threats to public confidence in business, one of the key drivers of mistrust is how companies deal with individuals’ personal data, following security breaches from organisations as diverse as TalkTalk, Phamacy2U, Yahoo, Tesco Bank, Target and the NHS. Given that it is now a case of when, not if, companies get hacked, while holding more data on individuals than ever, the public is anxious. Globally, nearly three-quarters of people (71%) say they are concerned about how information collected about them online is being used by companies (Sweden is the least concerned, at 54%). In fact, people are more worried about how companies use this information than what their government is doing with their data (66% concerned globally, but especially high in emerging economies like India and Brazil).
The public is particularly dubious of certain sectors. If we look at the trust deficit for various sectors (agree minus disagree), we see social media sites are least trusted to use personal information correctly (trust deficit of -24). The deficit is especially large in established European markets like Spain (-56), Germany (-55), France (-47) and Britain (-45).
Other sectors with challenges are telecoms (-15 trusted globally, and -29 in Britain) and insurance (-13 globally, but -33 in Britain). Now of course, lack of trust doesn’t necessarily stop people using social media or telecoms. But it may limit what information people provide or share.
Despite brands still signalling quality and reliability to most people, real trust in business is – at best – a work in progress.
To succeed in gaining and retaining trust, brands need to not only flawlessly and consistently deliver day-in and day-out, they must do this across dimensions beyond just the goods and services they provide. Data security must be impeccable.
Interactions with the broader world need to be regular and conducted with integrity. Honesty should be a watch-word – and that means it’s much better to admit something has gone wrong than to let it simmer for years before addressing it, or allow it to appear in a newspaper, blog or on a social media site first.