Tomorrow morning, I will be on stage at the Belvedere Hotel in Davos, releasing the results of our latest 23-country Edelman Trust Barometer study. The lead of the story must be that trust is transformed. In the wake of the financial market meltdown at the end of 2008, we have gone through a series of corporate crises during 2010 — from oil spills to product recalls affecting the leading enterprises in five sectors to the near-bankruptcy of five nations in the EU. The result is an even more profound shift in the expectation of companies to operate with increased transparency and in a manner that delivers profit while improving society, captured by my client Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, in her phrase, “Performance with Purpose.”
We also found unprecedented skepticism, a need to hear, see or watch news as many as ten times before achieving belief, plus an increased reliance on those with credentials and expertise.
Here are the key findings for your perusal:
A. State of Trust
1) Trust in Business—There are now three clear country groupings – the Trusters, the Neutrals and the Distrusters. The Trusters, notably Brazil, China, and India, withstood the financial crisis and had positive economic performance this year. There is evidence of rising trust in business over the past two years even in flat-lined economies such as France, the Netherlands and Italy. The key change in 2011 is the switch of Germany and the USA, with the former now in the Neutrals with Japan, while the USA moves to the Distrusters along with Russia and the UK. Business is as or more trusted than government in 19 of the 23 nations we surveyed this year.
2) Trust in Government—There are fewer countries in the Truster category for government, including Brazil, China, Singapore and the UAE. The largest drops in trust in government were in Germany and the USA. Note that in general, trust in business and government is now in sync, a change in the past two years. Though there are exceptions, such as Germany, where rising trust in business is observed despite less confidence in government.
3) Trust in Media—We note that trust in media continues to rise in the developing world and to slide in the developed economies. The most depressing findings for media were in the US and UK, respectively 27% and 22%, which we attribute to increased politicization, aggressive tone and scandals.
4) Trust in Non-Governmental Organizations—For the first time, trust in NGOs in key developing markets is equivalent to that of business, a remarkable rise over the past five years, which we attribute to the evolution of local civil society brands and rising prosperity. NGOs continue to be the #1 ranked institution in trust in the Western economies, the Fifth Estate in global governance picking up trust lost by the other three institutions.
5) Trust in Industries—Technology continues to wear the halo as the number one industry in both developed and developing economies (98% trusted in China). Banking and Financial Services are now the least trusted industries of the 16 we review annually. The reputation of banks continues to plummet, especially in the US, UK and Ireland, down nearly 50 points in the US in the past three years to a new low of 25%. Automotive has made an amazing recovery, to rank as the #2 trusted industry in the world, attributable to the GM IPO, the launch of electric cars and the association with modernity in the developing world.
6) Trust in the USA—The US was the only country to see a decline across all four institutions, what we describe as an echo decline. We have three hypotheses for this cross-sector drop: the US was the epicenter for most of the corporate crises this year, which centered around leading category and iconic companies; US citizens had strong expectations for economic recovery dashed in a mid-year slump; and most importantly, business and government continued to clash on regulation and taxes, although President Obama has moved in the past month to improve this situation.
7) Trust in Nationality—The companies headquartered in Canada, Germany and Sweden continue to enjoy a trust advantage, while the UK and Switzerland are closing the gap. American companies are much better regarded in the past two years, especially in Germany and Russia, while preserving a strong reputation in such key future markets as Brazil and China. The companies based in the BRIC nations saw rising trust scores in developing nations, but a decline in markets such as the USA.
B. Earning Trust
8) What Drives Corporate Reputation—The top four factors are High Quality Products and Services; Company I Can Trust; Transparent Business Practices; Treats Employees Well. The bottom two are Highly Rated Leadership and Delivers Consistent Financial Returns. This is the second year in a row that we see a reversal of constituent elements of reputation, suggesting a rebalancing of priorities for business.
9) Shareholder vs. Stakeholder—We asked specifically about Milton Friedman’s contention that the social responsibility of business is to generate profit; about 50% of respondents agreed. But, we also probed whether companies need to create shareholder value in a way that benefits society even if that causes a reduction in shareholder value; about 80% agreed with that point of view, from developed to developing economies. This indicates a desire for profit and purpose, a stakeholder approach to shared value.
10) Credible Spokespeople—Given the uncertainty in the economy and plethora of sources of information, respondents said that they believe spokespeople with proven expertise, in order Academics, Technical Experts from a Company (for first time), Financial Analysts and Chief Executive Officers. The recovery of the CEO in reputational terms is remarkable; this is the highest score we have seen in nine years, though in the UK and US that means only about one third believe a CEO is credible. We also found that in a crisis, the number one trusted source is the CEO, followed by an Outside Expert, followed by a Technical Expert from the company.
11) Information Sources—More people go initially to search engines, then to online sources for information about a company. The brands most noted are the familiar mainstream media stalwarts such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Globo, CCTV. Blogs and social networks substantially lag the mainstream brands.
12) Benefits of Trust—If you go into a crisis as a distrusted company, it takes only 1-2 negative stories for a person to believe negative news. If you go in as a trusted company, it takes only 1-2 positive stories for you to achieve belief. Trust is a protective agent, a facilitator of action. We find further evidence of desire to buy products, recommend products/services and buy shares in a trusted enterprise.
Trust is no longer a commodity that is acquired but rather a benefit that is bestowed, earned through action, reinforced by transparency and engagement. Business has the opportunity to build an enduring foundation of trust if its leaders commit to a strategy that brings value to both investors and society — the What and the Why. However, today it must further explain How it makes money, a new level of transparency on business practices — for instance, ingredients in products. Finally, it must build relationships across the entire stakeholder universe, the Where, by engaging audiences across the four leaf clover of media (Mainstream, New, Social, Owned) and joining the continuing conversation by adding value and learning from the critics.