Brands grew out of a trust-based relationship, the promise of quality and dependability. You believed a brand would deliver on its promise and was worth the premium. You recognized that the product or service made you look or feel better. You had an image of the brand set through advertising and it prompted you to purchase. Over time, the trust element became subliminal, while the rational and emotional aspects of purchase behavior moved to the forefront. 

The seismic shocks of the past six months have put trust back in the center of brand marketing strategy. The global Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed nearly half a million lives, and mass demonstrations against systemic racism prompted by the senseless murder of George Floyd, have given new urgency to the central role of brands in society. Brands are thrust into the unaccustomed role of arbiter of social justice and symbol of political movements.  

The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust in 2020, conducted May 27-June 5 in 11 countries, found that trust is the second most important factor in the decision to buy a new brand (53 percent) or become a loyal customer (49 percent), trailing only price and affordability at 64 percent. This stands in stark contrast to last year, when trust was the fifth factor, behind product performance, customer service, retail presence, and ingredients. Trust has emerged as a powerhouse for consumers because it addresses their fears, most notably personal vulnerability around health, financial stability, and privacy. 

There are new demands on brands to solve, not just sell. Brand Democracy has been the new normal, with nearly two-thirds of consumers looking for brands to be a force for societal change and voting with their wallets. There is a demand for tangible actions, not just communications, with brands expected to partner with government to find a safe way to return to normal business or to shift the product mix to help people meet the new challenges of life. Forty six percent of people now trust most of the brands they use, up 12 points in the past year, and rising more than 20 points in the U.S., Brazil, and Germany.  

Brands are now seen as more powerful than their corporate parents. Brand and reputation overlap, with 42 percent of respondents saying they will not work for a company unless its brands stand up against racism. 60 percent of consumers in the U.S. say they would buy or boycott based on whether the brand speaks out on racial injustice. Nearly half of global respondents (44 percent) said that they have begun to use a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Trust is also tied to other societal issues, with 44 percent saying they care about brand impact on the environment. 

There is a change in consumer values inherent in the move to trust, with consumers choosing brands to be a reliable partner instead of lifestyle enabler. Asked what roles brands should play, respondents gave the highest scores to brands as dependable provider (69 percent), reliable source of information (64 percent), and being a protector or innovator (63 percent). By two to one, it is less important to associate the brand with excitement and adventure or to make me feel I am successful.  

The battle for trust is actually the battle for truth and it is being won or lost through earned media and personal experience. Advertising is avoided by nearly 70 percent of respondents, and has only half the impact of earned media, as people prefer to hear directly from technical experts or people like themselves. 

If brands deliver on the promise of advocacy and action, then they’ll be rewarded with deeper, more resilient relationships with the consumer. Respondents told us that they are nearly five times more likely to advocate for a high trust brand and are three times as likely to share their personal information with that brand. Most important of all, trust unlocks loyalty, with eight times as many high-trust respondents saying they will only buy a particular brand.

We will look back at the spring of 2020 as a pivot point in our history, a time in which personal and societal issues converged. Brands are expected to step into the void because government is failing to deliver on racial justice, personal safety, health, and education. There is a new risk-reward equation for brands beyond communications; you have to advocate and act in order to remain relevant to your consumer. Brands that take a stand on racial justice are four times as likely to gain trust as brands that stand to the side. The time is now for brands to lead, to inspire hope, and deliver change. 

Richard Edelman is CEO.