All marketers worth their salt know that the consumer’s trust in their brands is the single most important determinant of long-term success. The simple and timeless truth which every elementary marketing textbook contains is: If consumers don’t trust a brand, they will, sooner or later, stop buying it. Over the past several decades, marketers have, therefore, invested a significant portion of their efforts and resources in creating and nurturing such trust – through developing reliable products and services, beaming multiple messages to consumers through packaging and advertising, which reinforce such trust, and, in general, talking about their own trustworthiness whenever they can.

Two big social developments Suddenly, it appears that these efforts are just not enough. Because things are changing quite rapidly. Two key social developments appear to have affected the trust which brands command, and the lens through which consumers view such trust.

First and foremost, consumers across the world, and increasingly in India too, are becoming distrustful of companies and brands. This adverse perception is fed by stories of some brands and corporates that do not care adequately for their consumers, that profiteer at the expense of society and the environment, that are poorly governed, and pockmarked by financial scandals.

While these stories may not be representative of a majority of corporates and are, perhaps, focused on a few poorly-led and inadequately-managed brands, their effect has been amplified by modern media, and has contributed to an overall increase in consumer distrust in brands, as well as in what brands say about themselves. As the Trust Research Advisory (TRA) so aptly sums this up – “The era that we live in is characteried by an enormous trust deficit”. A second development that has led to unprecedented change has been the rapid surge of the digital medium, including general use of the Web and email, search engines such as Google, social networks such as Facebook and Linked-In, and digital platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.

These have opened up a fresh new window to the world for millions of consumers, not merely in the western world or China, but also in India. Look at these amazing statistics: Facebook now has over 110 million users in India, its “premium” cousin Linked-In has over 25 million Indian subscribers, and both these networks have more than doubled in our country over the past two years. Virtually everyone I know uses Google. Clearly, these connected Indian consumers are using these digital media to evaluate everything in their lives, including the brands which they use or wish to going forward.

The impact on brands Both these developments mean that brands can no longer rely on their time-tested methods of retaining and nurturing trust amongst their consumers.

Some fundamentals will, of course, never change. Consumers will trust only those brands which offer them reliable products and services, which meet their specific needs consistently, which do not let them down. Hence, brands will have to stay close to their knitting, and will need to continue to focus on developing and offering products and services of excellent quality and value.

Marketers will have to ensure that their existing products continue to offer the same dependable quality and experience at all times. Such dependability is the reason that, for our daily household use, my wife and I implicitly trust FMCG brands such as Dettol, Britannia Biscuits and Tata Salt. No wonder such names always appear on the list of India’s most trusted brands.

But many other things have certainly changed. For instance, in an era of trust deficits, fewer consumers will believe brand-speak. When brands blow their own trust trumpets, they will be met with much higher cynicism, now, than in the past. Similarly, consumers will want to discover brand truths for themselves, through the enormous virtual universe on social media and the internet, which is only a keystroke away. So what then are the new sources that consumers are relying on, to they assess whether they trust brands?

Here are some thought-starters on the subject.

Expert Reviews In many recent surveys, a large majority of consumers have said that endorsement by an unbiased expert would make them more likely to trust a brand, and purchase a product. Independent expert reviews are trusted far more than brand advertisements or the company’s own websites. This is particularly the case in relation to complex and expensive products such as cars, flat screen televisions and smartphones, where an involved purchase is likely; or in relation to new brands which have just been launched.

These expert views could appear either online or in print publications. Marketers, therefore, need to ensure that the relevant experts are aware of their brands and the entire brand story. Where necessary, the products have to be tested and evaluated by these experts, well in time. Not all marketers take the required time and effort today to ensure this.

Local sources of credibility Consumers in hinterlands including semi-urban India, appear to depend significantly on influential members of the local community, to develop their assessments of brands. Trust is a deciding factor in purchase decisions, but such trust is based on conversations with local influencers, including local farmers or retailers. A recent and insightful Nielsen report titled: The Rise of India’s Rural Super Consumer contains this interesting story, it says, “Trust seems to be the deciding factor in all decisions, including brand acceptance. One of the best ways to achieve this is by demonstrating to the consumer that he is more than just a sales target or statistic. One FMCG major made huge inroads by appointing a prominent local farmer from each of the villages it offered services to, as an agent or sanchalak . These individuals ran the FMCG retailer’s local agriculture purchasing, information and distribution business. The company soon gained credibility by extension, riding in on the agent’s own personal credibility.”

Online consumer reviews Across categories, online consumer reviews are emerging as one of the most trusted sources of brand information. Some recent surveys I have read suggest that while less than 50 per cent of people trust messages contained in brand advertisements, more than 90 per cent of consumers trust word-of-mouth online, from other consumers who have actually experienced the brand.

These reviews could appear on assorted blogs, the company’s own web forums, Facebook, Pinterest and many other social sites.

Brands, therefore, need to consciously create easily accessible platforms for such reviews, and they also need to encourage honest consumer conversations about their offerings, everywhere possible.

In doing so, they have to be prepared for both positive and adverse feedback, and, in particular, to address the latter immediately.

Trusted seals of certification Many of us in India know of seals of certification such as ISI, Agmark and Woolmark, which indicate trust in a specific level of quality of the product or brand. Some of us have sought out these certifications before we purchase a food product, woollen blanket or gold jewellery. As consumer distrust in brands grows, such hallmarking and certification is likely to grow in importance, as objective and unbiased indicators of trust. In addition, an increasing number of modern consumers are likely to trust brands which are socially and environmentally responsible. Therefore, certifications that reassure consumers that brands are contributing positively to the community and environment will also be a significant determinant of trust – these include Ecomark, Rainforest Alliance Certification, UTZ and Bird Friendly certification.

Authenticity Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, modern consumers will seek authenticity and honesty from brands that they would like to endow with their trust. Such authenticity can arise from the brand’s heritage, or from free-flowing conversations in website forums, or from the voices of a brand’s employees or vendors.

True stories about a brand’s long heritage and origins can contribute to authenticity and trust. So can honest interviews with employees, which are posted online or offline, and provide consumers a real picture of what the insides of the company and brand are like. Visual depictions of these true stories and interviews, on media such as YouTube, can make for very compelling and interesting statements of authenticity.

In conclusion, while consumer trust in brands will continue to remain anchored in basics such as excellence of products and services and being a good corporate citizen, marketers need to realise that consumers are now assessing such trust through many new lenses. To cultivate and retain trust, brands, therefore, will have to necessarily move into these new lines of sight.

(Harish Bhat is the author of “Tata Log:Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution”. These are his personal views. He can be reached at bhatharish@hotmail.com )

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