There’s an accepted wisdom nowadays that trust in business is broken. But is it? And is the extent of the problem the same, around the world?
This is just one of the issues we’ve explored in the Ipsos Global Trends Survey.
At a headline level, the trust deficit does seem as wide as ever. Exactly half (50%) of the people surveyed say they don’t have a high level of trust in business – comfortably outnumbering the 2 in 5 (42%) that do.
The news seems even grimmer for the leaders of these businesses. Fully 3 in 5 (61%) of the public don’t trust them to tell the truth.
Is this part of a wider, global trend – what Bobby Duffy (Managing Director of Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute) calls the ‘crisis of the elites’? This trend is encapsulated in the view, held by a majority in every single country in the study, that the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.
Perhaps. But look a little deeper, and trust in business is actually much higher than belief in the ‘system’ as a whole. As we’ll see in the next section, the world is divided on whether business can be trusted or not, but it’s also not the wholesale rejection seen with politics in much of the world. Consumers do not automatically group businesses and brands together with the ‘elite’. This is maybe because ‘business’ is so much more varied than the economic ‘system’ in people’s minds, made up of individual companies and brands that they do connect with.
Trust in business isn’t one-size-fits-all.
If you’re the globe-hopping CEO of a multinational, our findings suggest you should tailor the way you speak about trust, depending on where your plane touches down.
In India and Indonesia – among the world’s fastest-growing major economies, where commerce is an engine of progress – more than 7 in 10 have a high level of trust in business – far outstripping the 3 in 10 or so who trust businesses in the mature European economies of Germany, Spain, Britain and (least trusting of all) France.
However, mistrust of business leaders is more widespread, with countries as diverse as Russia, Argentina, South Korea, France and Belgium particularly mistrusting.
We’re also seeing intriguing demographic differences. Generation Xers, Millennials and Generation Zers all tend to be more trusting of business than Baby Boomers, though not overwhelmingly so, while women are more mistrustful than men. High levels of both education and income are also good markers of higher trust – as are living in a large city or the suburbs, and having children.
So when we ask whether business is trusted, we need the qualifier – trusted by whom? And, as we’ll see in the next section, trusted to do what?
What we talk about, when we talk about trust.
At its most fundamental level, trust in businesses is about competence – do we trust corporates to sell us things that are safe, reliable and effective?
On the whole, yes we do; 3 in 5 of us (57%) trust business to deliver the standard of products and services that they promise. But still, 2 in 5 (and many more in Russia, South Korea and Argentina) don’t assume even this basic level of competence, whether because of topical crises or more long-term, systemic failings.
Better news for corporates is that three quarters of us (73%) trust them to drive innovation, through new products, services and ideas.
Increasingly, though, many of us aren’t satisfied with a company just fulfilling a transactional need. Activist consumers and engaged citizens also look for corporate behaviour that is responsible, ethical and benefits more than just the elite few. For instance, globally, 67% of us agree that it’s become more important that the brands we choose make a positive contribution to society, beyond just providing a good service or product. This is the majority view in virtually all countries we surveyed.
So it’s worrying that more of us disagree than agree that businesses can be trusted to care for the environment (54% disagree, 39% agree) or even to treat their own employees well (50% disagree, 43% agree). Once again, it’s people in South Korea and Russia who are most sceptical on both counts, with India most positive.
Are businesses leaving communities behind?
What about the contribution of industry and commerce to our national economies – how does this affect trust?
Despite repeated outcries over tax avoidance and off-shoring, two thirds (67%) do trust businesses to deliver economic growth in their country. Only France is marginally against this view on balance, and once again it’s the dynamic economies of India and Indonesia which are most upbeat.
However, in terms of improving the socio-economic conditions of our own communities, opinion is much more split; 2 in 5 (42%) of us – and more in France, Great Britain and South Korea – don’t trust business to do this. And as we might expect, mistrust is greatest among inhabitants of rural communities.
Clearly, building trust in business is – at best – a work in progress. Data from younger people and fast-growing economies are bright spots, but businesses still have to do more to show how they benefit communities in the real world, beyond the narrow interests of the ‘elites’.
Part of the solution will always be better communication. Currently, more than half of us (54%), globally, don’t trust businesses to communicate frequently and honestly on the state of their company. But good communication isn’t enough – we’ve seen that savvy consumers expect companies to walk the talk, too.
Our findings suggest that the trust deficit is as much an opportunity as a threat. With elites in crisis, companies that are confident and forward-looking in their positioning, that are seen to be on the side of ordinary people, can thrive.
As a final thought, we should ask – why does trust matter so much? In bald commercial terms, it’s because when we, as consumers, really trust a company, we’re demonstrably more likely to choose and feel good about its products and services, and even to pay more for them.
But, even more importantly, it’s much harder for a business to thrive, or even function sustainably, without the broad support of society – and this ‘social licence to operate’ is built on public trust.