This article previously appeared in Adweek.
In his stand-up routine on advertising, comedian George Carlin said, “America’s leading industry is still the manufacture, distribution, packaging and marketing of bullshit.” Although the bit is decades old, the public’s attitude toward advertising unfortunately hasn’t changed much. But something has: We are now more connected than ever before.
Digital technologies and social media give brands greater access to consumers and create new ways to engage and interact. But they also make it easy for customers to abandon, or even damage, a brand they feel has done wrong.
It is tougher to earn brand loyalty in this environment, so marketers must continually nurture these relationships as their role in consumers’ lives changes.
THE TRUST DEFICIT
To fully appreciate our responsibility as marketers, we must acknowledge our industry’s reputation for trickery, one that we largely earned.
There’s no shortage of examples of common marketing practices that are unfair or exploitative to consumers: Food or other products labeled “natural” or “organic” can be full of surprising additives, a tactic that’s deceptive in spirit even if technically legal.
Expensive skin care products are sold in hefty glass jars that appear inexplicably tiny once you open the lid. The entire concept of mail-in rebates is rigged in businesses’ favor, with very few willing to go to the trouble of claiming them.
As marketers, our livelihood depends on consumers, so it’s counterproductive to trick them. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that consumers may buy a product based on its reputation, but 59% would stop buying it if they didn’t trust the company.
One thing is true: If consumers feel they have been wronged, the company has made a mistake. Correct the business model or correct the perception if that’s where the problem lies. In the digital age, it’s easier than ever for consumers to throw a brand overboard, and word spreads quickly when a brand is found to be behaving badly.
Thankfully, karma isn’t all about punishing missteps. As trust becomes more important to consumers’ buying decisions, brands that do the right thing have the chance to shine.
In the same Edelman survey, 59% of respondents said it is worth paying more for a brand that has earned their trust, and 55% will pay more for a brand that does good for the world. Younger consumers are driving this change, with 65% of millennials and Gen Z adults awarding a trust premium.
As brands overall become less relevant and important in people’s lives, this renewed spotlight on ethics creates major opportunities, and trust is becoming a huge competitive advantage. As marketers, here’s how we earn it:
Reset our priorities around data. Data is absolutely crucial to a marketer’s job today. Consumers will entrust us with it as long as we use it responsibly and handle it transparently. The industry must value people over data and maintain a strong sense of collective accountability for data ethics.
Commit to straightforward practices. Packaging, pricing and advertising should reflect reality. No tricks, no deception.
Stay truthful and genuine. Embrace the chance to connect, but don’t manufacture opportunities or exploit a situation.
Hold partners and vendors to high standards. Trustworthy brands carefully vet every entity they do business with. A shady partner can damage a brand—and consumers will sniff them out if your leadership does not.
Respect consumer privacy. This is non-negotiable. I am a big proponent of simplifying privacy laws, but nothing beats the self-regulation that comes from having an ethical North Star.
Get ahead of negativity. If a problem surfaces for your brand or product, own up to it. Honesty and transparency can help head off a social media and public relations firestorm.
Make ethics contagious. Marketing teams must reflect the spirit of integrity they set out to sow. Diversity, equity and inclusion start in-house.
There are no shortcuts to building a trustworthy brand, but the disruption of marketing’s fifth paradigm has given us new opportunities. Consumers are increasingly connected to the world around them and attuned to the issues they care about. For brands, the expectations and the stakes are high.