How Can Persuasion Occur in a Distrustful World?

According to the most recent wave of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, the U.S. is experiencing the worst ever collapse of trust in the survey’s history.  Trust in the U.S. government fell a jaw-dropping 14-percentage points in 2017. While trust in business fell 10-points, NGO’s were down 9-points and media dropped 5-points.

Given the uncertainty associated with the current administration, coupled with daily social media disruptions on a national and global scale, the trust crash in government, business and the media probably shouldn’t come as surprise.  Societal, business and governmental behavior seem to be breaking the traditional norms and expectations across a number of issues related to gender, sexual harassment and qualifications for public office (Oprah for President, anyone?).

In the meantime, Wall Street indices and employment levels seem to reach new, oblivious highs every day.  While U.S. economic behavior seems to be decoupled from political behavior in Washington, the Trust Barometer reports that 50% of the U.S. population is classified as “Disengaged”—meaning they consume news “less than weekly.”  Edelman points out that “people have retreated into self-curated information bubbles, where they read only what they find agreeable, as if selecting their playlist for music.”

While U.S. economic behavior seems to be decoupled from political behavior in Washington, the Trust Barometer reports that 50% of the U.S. population is classified as “Disengaged”—meaning they consume news “less than weekly.”

So as marketers, how can we influence and ultimately persuade people who are distrustful, disengaged and exist in their own information Echo Chamber bubbles?

In this world of distrust, fake news and disengagement from mainstream news sources, brands could be one of the few things that people willingly trust on a day-to-day basis.  Older, more established brands could leverage their history of reliability and dependability while younger, less established brands will require endorsements from qualified, third-party experts and genuine testimonials from credible and authentic users.  Given the increase in trust among CEO’s (+7 pts.) and Board of Directors (+6 pts), we wouldn’t be surprised to see more senior executives featured in ad campaigns, telling a brand’s stories about why they’re in business and what they do for consumers and local communities. We don’t see celebrity endorsements achieving success in the current distrust environment because they won’t be seen as experts, or as having genuine product authority.

With trust in large institutions declining, we see an opening for younger, Fast Company brands to establish credibility, trust—and ultimately scale—by using their employees in marketing communications since they make and manage the products themselves.  Notwithstanding what happened recently with some rogue start-up founders and CEO’s, company owners can take personal responsibility for a brand’s image and behavior.   As with celebrity endorsements, there’s always a risk of the brand endorser going off the rails, but it appears consumers are more likely now to put their trust in people vs. opaque institutions.

Recognizing that not all CEOs and founders are good in front of a camera, ad campaigns that feature genuine and fully transparent user testimonials, or feature third-party industry experts, will likely be effective in the new age of distrust.  Brand data from market research authorities such as JD Power, YouGov, Forrester, Gartner and Consumer Reports will likely increase in importance as consumers continuously seek out unbiased purchase decision-making data.

Daniel Gallagher

SVP, Brand Strategy & Research at R2C Group

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  1. Very well written, Dan. I appreciate your professional perspective on this as it crosses the brand spectrum. Certainly trust is a critical piece in branding and conducting business today. Nicely done.

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