Study: Too many brands are 'trust-washing' to sell products, say consumers

Findings from the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust?

CANNES: Consumers want brands to help society, but they are also wise enough to identify when a company is just trying to get in the public’s good graces with a lot of talk and no action, also known as "trust-washing."

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust?, which was revealed at the 2019 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity on Tuesday, found that consumers are not seeing the societal impact they expect from brands. Too many brands use societal issues as a marketing ploy to sell more of their product, said 56% of people surveyed. Additionally, the study found that 53% of respondents believe that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.

"The last couple of years we have been talking a lot about the concept of belief-driven buying and brands taking a stand," said Amanda Glasgow, Edelman’s global brand community chair. "Between 2017 and 2018, we saw a 13-point jump in consumers globally who identified as belief-driven buyers."

However, now there is a trend of backlash emerging from consumers toward brands they believe aren’t authentic or putting action behind the stances they are taking.

"Consumers are looking at brands and thinking they might just be doing things to sell them more stuff," said Glasgow.

Gillette, with its We Believe ad that takes on toxic masculinity, is one example of a brand that is trust-washing, she explained.

"It is provocative content, no doubt, and it got people talking," she said. "But in order to figure out what Gillette is actually doing to help solve that problem, you have to dig really deeply into their website to find out they are supporting some nonprofits that help men be their best selves. It is not clearly attached to that message."

One brand avoiding the "trust-washing" label is Edelman client Dove Men+Care. Earlier this year, Dove started a Paternity Leave Fund in an effort to raise more than $1 million for dads across America over the next two years. The fund will provide fathers who do not have access to paternity leave with $5,000 grants so they can be home to spend time with their new children.

"Dove did beautiful content around the importance of men bonding with their newborn children," said Glasgow. "If you look at the coverage around Dove’s announcement, it all includes references to that fund and tells consumers where to go to find it, so that action is really closely tied to the stance they are taking."

Other brands that have gained consumers’ trust by acting on their words are Salesforce, which barred its retail clients from using its technology to sell semi-automatic weapons, and Heineken, which redesigned its bars to discourage drunk driving, said Glasgow.

"There are probably a lot of brands taking a stand but not necessarily talking about the action that is behind it," she added. "There might be truth to the thing they say they are doing, but they are not making that part of the message, and that is where they are losing the consumer."

Other key findings from the study:

  • More than one-third of consumers (34%) trust most of the brands they buy or use
  • Brand trust is a deal breaker or a deciding factor for 81% of those surveyed when they’re considering a purchase, trailing only quality (85%), convenience (84%), value (84%) and ingredients (82%)
  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents said they find ways to avoid advertising
  • A majority of consumers age 18-34 (63%) are more trusting of influencers than a brand’s advertising
  • Eighty-seven percent of respondents have strong trust in a brand message after seeing it across six different channels, compared to 13% who have strong trust in a message after just one viewing
  • The most effective channel sequence for building trust in a message among people who are not customers of the brand begins with peer conversation, amplified by owned (74%)

The Trust Barometer surveyed 16,000 people in eight markets: Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.

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