How brands can build trust in a crisis

The coronavirus pandemic appears to have accelerated the erosion of trust, but there is an opportunity for brands that can show leadership and focus on doing what is right


Trust has never been more important or in shorter supply. Advertisers and marketers used to think winning loyalty was the ultimate campaign aim. But if the public does not trust a brand to begin with, building the loyalty needed for long-term success is that much harder. 

“Trust is the fundamental reason brands came into existence and why they became so valuable”, says Matt Waller, creative director of London-based advertising agency Recipe.

Yet trust in many public institutions is declining. This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that confidence in government (-8 points), the media (-6 points), NGOs (-6 points) and business (-3 points) was down as the pandemic, protests and politics polarised opinion. In the resulting “infodemic”, trust in all information sources slumped to record lows. 

The advertising industry specifically is also struggling with issues of trust. Advertising executives are once again bottom of a list of trust professions, below landlords, estate agents and politicians, according to Ipsos Mori’s 2020 Veracity Index. This decline in trust is now seen as such a problem that the industry body the Advertising Association has made it the focus of its work. 

Despite these numbers, there are signs of how business can turn this around. Trust in business may be down according to Edelman, but it is now the only institution that is actively trusted; people are neutral on NGOs, government and the media. And many companies have shown during the pandemic that they can take a leading role in society, whether it is BrewDog making hand sanitiser or Leon donating food to key workers.

“Lack of trust in news sources, governments and healthcare systems has created an opportunity for brands to step in, build trust with their consumers and ultimately drive loyalty,” said Lea Bernetic, head of brand and marketing at freelance hub UnderPinned.

But how do brands build confidence in a crisis, especially when trust in the advertising industry and those who work in it is so low. The numbers suggest that rather than telling people what they are doing through advertising, businesses need to show people the positive impact they can have.

History shows us how some of the most trusted brands built their reputations by acting with integrity in hard times. John Deere, the agricultural manufacturer, was founded in 1837 and nearly 200 years later it remains the top tractor brand in the UK with 28 per cent of the market and customer loyalty of 77 per cent, according to a survey of farmers by Farm Equipment magazine.

Lack of trust in news sources, governments and healthcare systems has created an opportunity for brands to step in, build trust with their consumers and ultimately drive loyalty

That loyalty has been earned through building trust, especially in difficult times. During the Great Depression, for example, farmers faced ruin as crop prices collapsed and incomes evaporated, but John Deere refused to repossess farm equipment, unlike other manufacturers. Then, during the Second World War, the company joined the war effort by making tractors, aircraft parts and ammunition for the armed forces.

“People remember how you treat them when the chips are down,” says Barnaby Benson, managing director of the copywriting agency that carries his name and who advises on brand language. “Now is the time to do good and earn trust for the long term.” 

There are other examples of brands earning trust despite difficult situations. In March 2011, a huge earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, killing 16,000 people and leaving millions destitute. Convenience store chain Lawson delivered 200,000 meals to victims and covered the cost of lost stock and damaged buildings for franchisees. In October, the company posted its highest profits for the first half of a fiscal year, to the end of August.

Japanese companies have become good at surviving crises in part because they understand the key role trust plays. In the wake of the same disaster, locally based Yakult faced a 30 per cent market loss. Instead of cutting jobs, the company gave $300 to each of its “Yakult Ladies” delivery staff and provided food and shelter to employees and locals.

This helps explain why Japan is a world leader in long-term corporate success. Around 40 per cent of companies in business for more than 300 years are based in the country, according to research by Dr Hirotaka Takeuchi, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. These companies show that longevity is built on trust and achieved by helping customers, workers and the community when they need it most.

In a time of global crisis, companies should demonstrate largesse, looking after their employees and the wider public. Brands should invest in doing good and build advertising campaigns around action, not rhetoric. “In an age of greenwashing and marketing spin, it has never been more important to build trust,” says Ben Parker, co-founder of creative agency Made Thought.

Ensuring communications are grounded in real actions is key. In 2017, Pepsi faced widespread criticism and was forced to pull an advert that appeared to appropriate an image of the activist Iesha Evans’s arrest at the Baton Rouge protests in 2016. Aaron Hanaphy, semiotics and cultural insights manager at McCann Central, says: “Consumers are equipped with extremely sensitive, in-built bulls**t detectors.” 

Brands risk a backlash if they capitalise cynically or hypocritically. Freddy Taylor, art director at Wieden + Kennedy, warns: “It has got to start internally before brands start putting messages about any of those movements in their adverts.” 

This means businesses must get their own houses in order by, for example, closing the gender pay gap, ensuring equal opportunities for black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, eliminating discriminatory hiring, promotion and dismissal processes, before sounding off publicly about social justice. 

How will the public remember a brand’s response to the pandemic in 100 years? Which will survive as mounting questions are asked about big societal issues such as equality, sustainability and climate change? As Yakult and John Deere show, building trust is even more important when times are difficult. And as the world looks beyond the pandemic to rising inequality, political upheaval and climate change, these are difficult times.