Trust is the new brand equity. In the ‘80s, the legendary brand strategist David Aaker defined brand equity in terms of brand loyalty, awareness, associations and perceived quality. Now brands will need to operate at the intersection of culture, purpose and society. Brands need to be for the people, and guided by the people. Why? Because brand trust ranks higher than brand love.

With four converging global crises over the last year—Covid-19, economic insecurity, financial/health inequities and systemic racism—brands that take a stand get a giant boost in trust. This evolved role for brands offers a new opportunity for brand marketers and real risk if they fail to recognize consumers’ call for brand action. The reality: Highly trusted brands are seven times more likely to be purchased. 

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust, The New Brand Equity, surveying 14,000 consumers in 14 countries, concludes that brands have an unprecedented responsibility to improve society. At the onset of the pandemic, consumers asked brands to be their savior, to protect them with affordable products while insisting on proper treatment of employees on the front lines. Today, our research shows a change in attitude, as consumers believe they have the power to force brands to change (63 percent) and want to exert that power on brands to make society better (78 percent). The deeper dependence on brands forged in the pandemic has made trust an essential purchase consideration, nearly equal to quality and value.

In return, brand trust clearly drives growth, with 61 percent of respondents prepared to advocate if they fully trust a brand, 57 percent prepared to purchase a new product or service, and 31 percent willing to share personal data or participate in activities sponsored by the brand. Those brands emphasizing only functional aspects earn an Edelman Brand Trust Score of 27 but those changing culture achieve a score of 65. Consumers are 4.5 times more likely to buy if a brand addresses human rights, 4x more likely if it speaks out on systemic racism and 3.5x more likely if it takes on economic inequality.  

Four years ago, we saw the rise in ‘belief-driven buying,’ driven in part by the belief that brands were better able to address major societal challenges than Government. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a further evolution from Me to We. Value, customer safety and putting people before profits have soared in importance (up 37 points) while personal image, trendiness and excitement are down 15 points. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say that they are more attracted to brands that focus on making the world a better place while slightly more than a third want brands to focus on individual benefits. 

Brands have traditionally concentrated on culture, leaving corporate issues such as diversity/inclusion and supply chain to the corporation, and societal issues to Government. Now, 86 percent of survey respondents say they expect brands to act beyond their product or business. Brands have to act in the moment and be a force for change. When anti-Asian rhetoric surged during Covid-19, Asian restaurants shuttered at nearly double the rate of others. Ajinomoto—makers of MSG—responded with a campaign that encouraged people to stand against racism and help Asian restaurants survive by ordering from their favorite local spots and promoting them online, prompting an uptick in sales for more than 2,500 Asian-owned businesses.

There are two foundational issues for brands: treatment of workers and a safe re-opening of the economy. The employee is the new power player; protecting workers’ rights and paying a living wage is the universal top trust-building attribute for brands across countries, age groups, income levels and genders, and sectors. Reputation and brand are inextricably linked, with 40 percent of respondents saying that they have stopped buying a brand they love because they do not trust the corporate owner. When football star Cristiano Ronaldo moved Coke bottles off the table at the recent Euro 2020 press conference, replacing them with water, it caused a sell-off in the parent company share price. 

Brands must also cope with heightened political sensitivities and deep ideological divides among global consumers. American and European apparel companies have been pressured by consumers and employees to take a stand on labor practices in Xinjiang, the cotton-producing area in China, prompting eviction from Chinese e-commerce platforms. Our report finds profound concerns globally about Chinese and Indian brands, primarily over issues of quality and safety (49 percent of respondents will avoid or not buy Chinese brands; 45 percent for India); while of the 19 percent who avoid American brands, a majority (59 percent) point to environmental concerns.  

Brands will have to operate differently in The Age of Trust. We need to reignite our corporate brands so that they play a more meaningful and direct role in people’s lives. Product brands must play a broader role in society and link their efforts to the corporate ethos. All communications must be multi-stakeholder by design, to prioritize employees to consumers. Brands must lean into the power of trust as an engine of change, because trust is an output, not an input. 

P.S. Congratulations to the team for winning a Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions Festival for ASICS Eternal Run. This is the first time Edelman has ever won this award and it shows that alongside our strong heritage in communications, we are now being recognized amongst the most creative firms too. It’s a great day of celebration thanks to the impressive work of the ASICS team, the Edelman team and specifically Mattias Ronge, Stefan Ronge, Judy John and Ruth Warder.

Trust, the New Brand Equity