What Drives Trust

The Edelman Trust Barometer has been researching and reporting on trust in institutions worldwide for 12 years. Over the past decade both the root causes and symptoms of the precipitous decline in trust have become increasingly visible.

Historically, we have measured trust as a single data point or metric, relying on informed publics to align understanding of this elusive commodity. Our survey has now expanded to include 25 countries around the world and responses from the general public. Our approach has also evolved, allowing us to measure trust against 16 key drivers – the core attributes proven to reinforce and build trust in an industry or business.  This brings new scientific precision to the largely intuitive art of assessing why and to what degree people trust a given, corporation or industry. Having this quantifiable information makes it possible to use the “Trust Drivers” as a baseline for comparing one company’s trust level with another’s and within a given industry. Access to this new level of precise information also allows us to pinpoint specific gaps in a company’s trust profile (comparing importance of said attribute against actual performance).

16 Trust Drivers (and how they cluster)

Our research indicates that a trustworthy company must combine operating efficiency with social responsibility, dividing the 16 Trust Drivers into “Societal” and “Operational” clusters.

Trust attributes clustered in the Operational category are:

  • Offers high quality products/services.
  • Has transparent open business practices.
  • Communicates frequently and honestly on the state of its business.
  • Delivers consistent financial returns to investors.
  • Has highly regarded and widely admired top leadership.
  • Is an innovator of new products, services or ideas
  • Ranks on a global list of top companies
  • Partners with NGOs, government and third parties to address societal issues.

Trust attributes that cluster together in the Societal category are:

  • Listens to customer needs/feedback.
  • Takes responsible actions to address an issue or crisis.
  • Places customers ahead of profits.
  • Treats employees well.
  • Has ethical business practices.
  • Works to protect and improve the environment.
  • Addresses society’s needs in its everyday business.
  • Creates programs that positively impact the local community.

Developing the Trust Drivers

The idea of the ‘Trust Drivers’ emerged from a combination of extensive secondary (literature and peer review) and primary research.  The first step involved conducting extensive secondary research to determine the most common factors that positively and negatively influence trust in a company. Although trust is a broad term that applies to many areas, our secondary research focused on business in particular. Findings were influenced by published studies, white papers and literature reviews. Publications used as sources included (but were not limited to) The Reputation Institute, Gallup, Better Business Bureau, Journal of Business Strategy and PwC (Edelman Client). This compilation included research conducted across North Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia Pacific – in over 35 countries. We then organized the research into developed broad overarching categories that ultimately netted 29 attributes that potentially build or damage trust in a company.

Edelman’s research division, Strategy One, then conducted an online survey of 3,000 general public respondents in three important but substantially different markets: China, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The researchers also surveyed a subset of what’s known as “informed publics” in each of the three countries. These are college educated, people with incomes in the top quartile who are media savvy and follow public policy news. All participants were asked to rate the potential impact of each of 29 attributes on their perception of a company’s trustworthiness.

The team first used a factor analysis to understand how the public organizes its perceptions of these 29 attributes. Factor analysis gives us a closer look at the dimensions in which the 29 attributes naturally cluster based on public opinion. In this case, we found that the public tended to organize the trust-building attributes and the trust-damaging attributes separately. Going a level deeper, the team then used multiple linear regression analyses to determine which of these dimensions best explain a respondent’s overall trust in business. Regression analysis is a statistical procedure for analyzing associative relationships between a dependent variable (in this case, trust in business) and one or more independent variables (the actions that build or damage trust). The dimensions based on the 16 trust-building attributes tended to have a significant relationship with overall trust in business. The 13 trust-damaging dimensions, by contrast, tended to have a much weaker impact on overall business trust (and were seldom even statistically significant). Accordingly, the team narrowed the original 29 attributes down to a more manageable 16 by eliminating the 13 trust- damaging measures.

Next Steps

Building and managing trust is a complex process.  Besides expanding our ability to measure trust levels, the new diagnostics give us insights into the trust dynamics at work within individual companies, industries and institutions. This refined data will allow us to offer more specific insights and recommendations on how to manage reputation and build trust.   By offering organizations a greater understanding of the components of trust, we can help organizations make better choices about building trust — while building a better society and a stronger economy at the same time

Full results from the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer are available by reading the Executive Summary or the Global Results Presentation.

Additional insights can be found by visiting the following sections of the site: The State of TrustTrust In InstitutionsThe Path Forward.

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