Business is just one more bad year away from joining media and government as institutions that a majority of people globally do not trust to do the right thing. While certainly not good news, this outcome can seem far removed from the day-to-day concerns of a specific business or brand. So why should businesses care enough about trust to monitor and enhance people’s trust levels in their sector and in themselves?
The major trust-related headline this year is that chronically low levels of trust have eroded people’s belief in the fairness and functional competence of the “system.” This has paved the way for populist movements in various parts of the world. Appearances to the contrary, populism is not solely a political movement. Businesses that turn a blind eye towards the swelling of populist sentiment because they consider it be a result of governmental failings—and therefore a problem for governments to fix—are overlooking two important facts.
First, the cumulative action of individual businesses is partially responsible for stoking the societal fears and dampening the trust in social institutions that are the driving forces behind populist action. It has done this by celebrating social disruptors such as automation, immigration and globalization without addressing, or even acknowledging their downsides in terms of job displacement, changing social values and capital flight.
Second, business is poised to become the next epicenter of populist ire and focus. As populists take control of governments and turn their attention to fulfilling their campaign promises regarding returning jobs, toughening immigration rules, upholding traditional values, and reversing the deleterious effects of globalism, business will increasingly find itself squarely in the crosshairs of new regulation, government policy pressure and activist consumerism.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identified a lack of faith in social institutions to create a promising future for individuals and their families as the primary motivation underlying support for populist movements. Businesses are in a unique position to help people feel better about the future by giving them a sense of job and financial security as well as proof of their own commitment to fair play. To the extent they do this, businesses will reduce the ferocity with which a populist agenda will be supported and pursued. In the end, faith in the system will be restored by individual businesses working to increase trust in themselves.
Beyond the societal benefits, there are also direct advantages enjoyed by trusted brands. First and foremost, trust is the foundation of a commitment-level consumer-brand relationship, and committed customers are more likely than less-committed customers to:
- facilitate a brand’s evolution by adopting its innovations more quickly and paying a premium price for its products;
- act as a brand’s sales force multiplier by advocating on its behalf;
- and protect the brand from marketplace disruption by sticking with it in the face of newcomer alternatives and forgiving its occasional failures.
It is more important than ever that businesses measure how trusted they are as a standard part of their brand/corporate health and reputation monitoring and work in a focused manner to increase that trust whenever and however they can. Not just to enhance their own financial outcomes, but to help restore and maintain a marketplace environment that is conducive to economic vibrancy.
David M. Bersoff, Ph.D., is head of Thought Leadership Research, Edelman Intelligence.