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The scary decline of trust in all facets of our society has created a new challenge for brands: how can brands overcome the growing skepticism and lack of credibility caused by this distrust to authentically relate to their customers? These trends have led to a rise of cynicism, where most Americans trust news or feedback more from “people like themselves” rather than the government, media, or big businesses and brands. Appealing to these distrustful customers who lack confidence and motivation has become a top priority. The answer will involve a new type of marketing, values-based branding, which will be focused more on identifying, relating to, and engaging these customers’ values and ethics.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer report recorded the lowest level of trust ever for government, business, media, and NGOs–an average of only 44%. Post-election results showed a further decline for trust in media (down 5% to 35%) and government (down 3% to 37%). Without trust, this report indicated that 57% believe our overall system is failing, and in people’s minds there is a “sense of injustice, a lack of hope and confidence, and a desire for change in our basic institutions.”

This continued decline of trust has also spread to concerns over how our social values are eroding. As many as 67% are concerned, and 36% even fearful, that:

  • “the values that made our country great are disappearing” and
  • “society is changing too quickly and not in ways that benefit people like me”

A key driver of the velocity of change is the exponential growth of technology, especially social media, and globalization. Another important dynamic is the political climate today, which has caused more polarization and skepticism than ever. These factors have led average consumers to ask where and how companies or brands stand on many of these social issues. In response, CEOs are now more focused on whether/how their brand values can better resonate with customers.

Traditionally, every brand is created around a set of values that relate to its customers’ and define a brand’s personality, purpose, and distinctive appeal. As a company brand, these values define its culture, ethics, and how it conducts itself. As Starbucks‘ CEO, Howard Schultz stated, “if people believe they share the values with a company, they will stay loyal to that brand.”

However most companies claim very similar, fundamental values–e.g. “integrity, respect, diversity, inclusion, etc.” A brand is essentially a promise that is intended to develop and sustain a bond with its customers. But when many companies pronounce the same generic set of values, and even more important, when such promises are not delivered, people become more cynical and distrustful. For example, Audi aired an appealing ad on gender equality during the Super Bowl, but its brand credibility and reputation were badly damaged when news spread online about its poor record of promoting women in leadership.

Under these trying circumstances, companies must work harder to convince customers that their brand is different and authentic, and importantly to credibly validate that its values resonate with its customer base. People not only want to know what a brand stands for these days, but they also want proof that its promises are real. The answer for brands is to become more involved with issues that mirror their values, which means taking credible, meaningful action that shows it is serious and can be trusted.

A common problem with many large companies is that their message on values is designed not to offend any of their multiple customer segments, and the approval process goes through many levels, so the final brand position on values can be rather lame and not compelling. On the other hand, a good if not controversial example of a company demonstrably delivering on a particular promise of diversity, an important value today, is Starbucks. Earlier this year it announced the addition of three new directors to its board, an African-American woman, an Indian-American, and a Dane, making it one of the most diverse corporate boards in the nation.

Companies must become more aware of the brand reputation risks in today’s tempestuous world. A business cannot just say what it stands for; it must actually take action to convince such doubting customers. Prudent executives must also be prepared for these possible attacks by activists, have a response ready, and even better, take the initiative with visible action to demonstrate the authenticity of their brand promises. A proactive values-based branding strategy can definitely strengthen a brand and overcome these problems of credibility and trust.


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About Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is President, founder of The Pathfinder Group, a business development firm specializing in emotional branding, ideation facilitation and international expansion. His background has focused mainly on marketing and new product development with executive positions at reputable companies in the US and abroad – Richardson Vicks/P&G, Church & Dwight, Seagram and Newsweek. Jay has also been teaching a branding course at NYU since 1999 and recently wrote a book on the “Basics of Branding”, published by Business Expert Press. Jay has a BA from Colby College and MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth.

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