Trust is a cornerstone of any successful brand. It reassures the customer that the product or service they are buying will live up to expectations.
It's a basic deal: if the brand delivers, it is rewarded; if it falls short, the customer will almost certainly take their business elsewhere.
Tom Blackett, group deputy chairman of Interbrand, eloquently articulated the power of brand trust in an article written last December for The British Brands Group. Blackett talks of a visit to Soweto in South Africa, before the end of apartheid, when he noticed local shops stocking well-known brands: 'I remarked to my guide that the products on display were all leading brands and asked why, as the people were so poor, cheaper alternatives were not available. The answer was simple: these people had so little money that they just could not afford to risk buying a brand they did not know and trust. In fact, among poor South Africans, such brands are known as "trustmarks". Nothing I have learned since about brands has taught me more about the value of reputation.'
In developed consumer cultures, brand trust plays a more sophisticated role than promising that the product meets basic quality standards. It is now closely intertwined with social and environmental responsibility, as consumers expect companies not only to keep the promise of delivering a consistent product, but also to behave honorably with shareholders, employees, suppliers and the communities in which they operate.
Trust can also help a brand expand, as the goodwill gained in one area can be carried into another. This rationale has helped build the empires of Virgin, Tesco and easyGroup.
Looking at it across these many different levels, Blackett says the importance of trust in modern-day marketing cannot be underestimated: 'Trust is the pre-eminent factor, which maintains the relationship between brands and consumers.'
All of which underscores the relevance and importance of one of the biggest ongoing surveys into brand trust, undertaken by that most trustworthy of brands, Reader's Digest. This is the fourth consecutive year of the survey, analysing the views of nearly 30,000 people in 14 European countries.
In the UK, Reader's Digest asked a nationally representative sample of 10,000 people about the brands they trusted most. The results are interesting on many levels, not only showing which brands have the best reputation, but also revealing how consumers associate size with trustworthiness, and the relationship between trust and loyalty.
Victoria Scott, publisher of Reader's Digest in the UK and France, says the company has strong reasons for carrying out the survey. 'Our business at Reader's Digest is reliant on our customers being prepared to tell us more detail about themselves. It allows us to market efficiently and with the least wastage,' she says. 'Trust is absolutely critical to us.'
Scott believes that business, and marketing in particular, is increasingly guilty of abusing this contract of faith. 'I think the marketing industry has put trust on the back burner - assuming it is there, but in practice abusing it at the expense of the customer. The trend toward more complex marketing, such as customer relationship management, means that consumers are becoming increasingly weary and wary. Brand owners need to rediscover the basics of consumer trust.'
Drawn from the Reader's Digest Association's UK database, and matched to mirror a representative sample of the population, Scott says the survey gives a genuine impression of how the public trusts brands. She says more people than ever took part in this year's survey, providing information about more brands in more categories (35, compared with 30 in 2003).
Survey respondents were asked to name their most trusted brand in each category, rating them against four criteria: quality, excellence of value, strength of image and understanding of customer needs. The survey has two levels of results: the brands with the most nominations overall, which are voted winners of their category; and those that scored highest in each of the four criteria.
This means, for example, that in the car category Ford is voted the most trusted brand overall for the fourth consecutive year. But when it comes to quality, Mercedes is the winner and, in terms of excellent value, Skoda comes top.
A new overall category winner this year is Head & Shoulders, which becomes the most trusted haircare product after three years with Pantene at the top. And Norwich Union ends Prudential's three-year reign as most trusted insurance company. More evidence of shift in reputation comes from Benilyn taking over from Lemsip in the cough/cold remedy section, Barclaycard overtaking Visa as the most trusted credit card and, in another good example of trust aiding category expansion, Tesco overturning Esso's long-held lead in the petrol retailer category. Other first-time winners include Clarks in the shoe retailer slot and B&Q in the DIY section.
When the categories are broken down by criteria, Mercedes emerges as a winner for image strength; shoe retailer Hotter scores a double by topping the 'understanding customer needs' and 'quality' leagues; and Asda is the victor when it comes to providing value.
This year, the research asked respondents whether they were customers of the brands, revealing how being a customer affects levels of trust. The survey shows that for some brands, trust is a function of fierce loyalty; 91% of the respondents who ranked Skoda top for understanding customer needs and excellent value are customers, while 94% of the people who put first direct top in all four criteria are customers.
Conversely, computer brand Apple has a reputation that reaches beyond its customer base. It comes top in all four attribute rankings in its category, but less than half of the people voting for it in each one are customers. Mercedes shows a similarly low customer proportion, proving that some brands can inspire trust through image and reputation alone.
Another intriguing aspect of the results comes when the brands that win their category are compared with those that score highest on individual attributes. British Airways scoops 'most trusted airline' (with 41% of the vote) for the fourth year running, but Air 2000 wins on quality, strong image and understanding customer needs.
Ryanair, meanwhile, grabs the gong for excellent value. In most categories, the biggest players seem to win 'most trusted', with smaller brands bagging the top scores for individual criteria. So what does this tell us about consumer trust?
For a start, it reflects the fact that smaller 'challenger' brands usually set out their stall on a particular point of difference. Ryanair is a perfect example. Sinead Finn, European sales and marketing manager for the budget carrier, says: 'I'm much happier that Ryanair is seen as the best-value airline in this survey than the most trusted brand. Low fares and excellent customer service is what our brand is all about.'
Mary Newcombe, head of marketing at Skoda UK, is pleased but not surprised that her brand comes top in terms of value and understanding customer needs, and also shows a very high level of loyalty. 'We're consistently told that customers love not only the buying experience, but also the after-sales service. We know that 90% of Skoda owners would recommend the brand to their friends. If we own anything as a brand, it is honesty. We don't pretend to be something we are not.'
The fact that so many category giants, including Kellogg, Canon, AOL, Nokia and Boots, come top in terms of overall trust shows that consumers often associate scale with trustworthiness - sometimes misguidedly. Jasmine Montgomery, strategy director at branding consultancy FutureBrand, explains: 'People always associate size with trust. But the biggest brands are often the category generic - they own the common ground. It's extremely hard for them to stand for something surprising and distinctive, which is why smaller players can 'pick off' those niche attributes and make them their own.'
Although she agrees that the individual criteria winners reveal some interesting results, Montgomery questions whether comparing brands by their perceived trustworthiness is relevant in an advanced business and marketing society. 'I don't see the point of it. Nowadays, trust is a threshold value, not a differentiator,' she argues. 'Trust and quality are the two attributes that brands need just to be in business - beyond that they do nothing to seduce the consumer.'
Montgomery makes a novel comparison to support her argument: 'Branding is like dating. The person you date can be as solid as you like, but that's not what gets you into bed. You are seduced by more interesting and special qualities.'
She claims Nokia is top of the mobile phone category in the survey not because it is seen as the most trustworthy, but because it makes fashionable, sexy phones. 'It goes beyond being a trusted brand. I think if we just focus on trust we miss opportunities to go after different and compelling qualities.'
Ryanair's Finn agrees that trust is an over-rated value. It seems improbable for a marketing director to say, but Finn is genuinely not interested in winning customers' trust. Like Montgomery, she believes it to be an entry-level attribute, and that her job is to build complementary qualities which, in Ryanair's case, are service and value.
'I don't think trust is a valuable way of comparing brands; it's woolly and indefinable,' she says. 'I'm much more interested in communicating to customers that Ryanair has the lowest fares in Europe and an unbeatable service. Our statistics for March show Ryanair runs 92% of flights on time compared with 80.6% for BA. The results speak for themselves.'
Others agree with Reader's Digest that brand trust is an important value to measure, particularly as recent experience has shown that a company's scale is far from being a guarantee of honest and reliable behaviour.
The oil reserves crisis that has rocked Shell, and led to a string of high-profile resignations, is a case in point. The oil giant stands accused of knowingly hiding its oil and gas shortfalls, overstating 2002 reserves to investors and the market by more than 4bn barrels.
This has done much to undo the long process of trust-building begun by the company in the aftermath of the 1995 Brent Spar debacle. It supposedly initiated a top-to-bottom re-engineering of the business, making it more ethical, transparent and accountable, but these efforts now seem like empty gestures.
Interestingly, Shell emerges from the survey as the most trusted petrol brand in Europe, attracting the most 'multi-country' votes in its category, although not receiving any from the UK. Indeed, as well as Tesco taking the most trusted petrol retailer slot from Esso, the supermarkets have roundly beaten the oil companies in all the attribute categories. When it comes to UK consumers' view of oil companies, it seems that size provides no guarantee of trust whatsoever.
As Blackett says: 'Arguably, the larger a company becomes, the more cracks appear in the edifice. Shell's problems with this overstatement of reserves, and its earlier problems with Brent Spar, have shown that if you score own goals it will have an impact on the high street. Enron and Worldcom are other examples of companies that betrayed the trust of investors.
I think that examples like these have contributed to a culture where people look behind the scenes at those running global corporations for evidence of ethical management. When it comes to inspiring trust, companies are now assessed on a wider set of criteria than before.'
MOST TRUSTED BRANDS 2004
Category Company Share I use the
of vote brand (%)
2004 (%) (category)
Airline British Airways 41 69 (74)
Analgesic Nurofen 19 90 (91)
Bank Lloyds TSB 17 97 (95)
Breakfast cereal Kellogg 59 94 (93)
Camera Canon 23 74 (78)
Car Ford 18 71 (72)
Car hire Hertz 36 43 (52)
Coffee Nescafe 54 89 (91)
Cosmetics Boots 18 82 (86)
Cough/cold remedy Benylin 21 86 (87)
Credit card Barclaycard 18 85 (89)
DIY retailer* B&Q 59 92 (93)
Food retailer Tesco 33 96 (94)
Haircare Head & Shoulders 12 96 (91)
Holiday company Thomson 20 59 (74)
Household cleaner Cif/Jif 23 93 (93)
Indigestion remedy* Rennie 32 74 (81)
Insurance company Norwich Union 14 88 (90)
Internet company AOL 16 75 (83)
Kitchen appliance Hotpoint 26 88 (86)
Margarine/butter Flora 27 93 (92)
Mobile phone Nokia 57 85 (86)
Optician Specsavers 36 80 (83)
PC Dell 27 45 (64)
Pet food Pedigree Chum 22 53 (76)
Petrol retailer Tesco 17 97 (92)
Shoe retailer* Clarks 50 83 (86)
Skincare Olay 18 83 (89)
Soap powder Persil 35 95 (94)
Soft drink Coca-Cola 22 93 (93)
Suncare* Boots 22 91 (89)
Tea PG Tips 24 88 (91)
Toothpaste Colgate 50 92 (93)
Vitamins Boots 15 78 (81)
Wine retailer* Tesco 17 93 (84)
METHODOLOGY: Reader's Digest Trusted Brands 2004 was conducted across 14
countries in Europe by postal questionnaire. In total, 28,067
questionnaires in 12 languages were analysed. Winners are the brand in
each category that received the greatest number of votes. Share of vote
is based on the total number of respondents able to name a trusted brand
in the sector. Data capture for the entire project was handled by
Bristol company Wyman Dillon. To order a full report, priced £195,
email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 020 7715 8400.
TOP MULTI-COUNTRY BRANDS 2004
Category No of Brands winning in more
winning than three countries
brands* (number of countries)
Mobile phone 1 Nokia (14)
Credit card 2 Visa (13)
Skin care 3 Nivea (12)
Camera 4 Canon (10)
PC 6 IBM (4), Dell (3)
Hair care 6 Pantene (5), L'Oreal (4)
Soap powder 6 Ariel (6), Persil (3)
Car 7 Mercedes (4), VW (4)
Toothpaste 7 Colgate (6)
Cosmetics 8 Avon (4), Nivea (3)
Pain relief 10 Aspirin (5)
Kitchen appliance 11 Miele (4)
Petrol retailer 11 Shell (3)
Soft drink 11 Coca-Cola (3)
Insurance company 12 n/a
Vitamins 12 Centrum (3)
Cold remedy 12 n/a
Holiday company 13 n/a
Internet company 13 n/a
Bank/building society 14 n/a
Source: Reader's Digest
*Number of different winning brands across Europe
This article was first published on Marketing