The codes of trust are being redefined and Virtue’s Shir Lee Akazawa says the way forward for brands to rebuild trust is a radical embrace of humanity. Inside Culture by Virtue is a mini-series that puts a spotlight on the emerging forces that are disrupting today and shaping tomorrow, championing a diverse range of case studies and opinions across Asia  the rising epicenter of global culture.

Trust is at an all-time low, with 64% of Gen Z saying they are less trusting of others than before the pandemic. More critically, trust in institutions – government, media and brands – is on the decline. This signals an urgent need for brands to rethink how they build trust, the premise of any healthy relationship, and the fundamentals that need to be in place to be able to push on any other key brand metrics like consideration, likeability, desirability or advocacy.

Source: VMG The Culture of Trust, 2022

While brands used to be a source of aspiration and badge value, the dynamic between brands and audiences has flipped. From the rise of call-out culture demonstrating consumer fatigue of hollow brand promises, to #deinfluencing questioning the credibility of information to make informed purchases, brands no longer have the assumed stature of previous generations.

This generation defines itself first and foremost with its personal identity, values, passions and interests, instead of defining itself through brands. Eight in 10 will make extra effort for something that fits in their principles. Amidst this new landscape where truth and authenticity are constantly in question, brands need to redefine how they earn trust in the world today. 

Status quo: Brands acting like machines

In an age where social responsibility weighs heavily on companies and brand purpose has increasingly become intertwined with corporate strategy, trust-building initiatives often come across as marketing speak and brand jargon that fail to connect with people, let alone build trust.

The typical principles that brands rely on to build trust are:

  • A perfect, blemish-free track record
  • A pre-identified list of days to align with causes and communities
  • Association and partnerships with influential individuals

But these can be perceived as pretentious and disingenuous by a skeptical audience who is keener to take brands down, rather than to applaud them for their altruistic initiatives.

The ingredients of trust are inherently human, not corporate. Amidst a climate of institutional skepticism, there is an opportunity for brands to embrace new codes of trust, built on the intrinsic human principles of vulnerability, spontaneity and community.

Principle 1: Own our mistakes

Brands are obsessed with looking perfect. Saying sorry or even acknowledging a mistake is widely regarded as corporate suicide. This has resulted in brands glossing over their issues or staying silent in hopes that if they don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t exist.

However, audiences are no longer seeking perfection, they are seeking the exact opposite. With the popularity of spontaneous social photo apps, unfiltered edits showing the raw, real and vulnerable side of you are something that is increasingly respected.

A staggering 90% of consumers trust a brand that openly admits its mistakes. Transparency is equally important, with 86% of consumers placing their trust in brands that communicate their processes transparently (VMG The Culture of Trust, 2022).

A great example that demonstrates how owning mistakes can accelerate trust-building is Barbie/Mattel. Mattel used the film to acknowledge and confront its less-than-perfect past. From featuring its controversial discontinued products such as Sugar Daddy Ken and Growing Up Skipper, to going as far as acknowledging Barbie inventor Ruth Handler’s run-ins with the law, Mattel voluntarily took the skeletons out of the closet and embraced the past controversies head on. This bold move transformed the brand to one that speaks to and is reflective of the current generation.

Principle 2: Enable spontaneous acts of kindness

Brands in recent years have become obsessed with showing up on “days” in the social calendar and typically in expected and contrived ways, eg, rainbow-washing during Pride month. To the most skeptical of audiences, these good intentions can come across as superficial lip service at best and, at worst, desperate attempts by brands to be part of a trending conversation in culture.

According to VMG The Culture of Trust, 2022:

  • 89% of people trust brands that show kindness and empathy
  • 61% trust a brand that makes them laugh

While it’s necessary for brands to operationalise systemically via a marketing calendar, they should also allow some space and enable a process for spontaneous, unexpected acts of kindness that will cut through in a cluttered corporate landscape. 

One brand that exemplifies spontaneous action is Charles & Keith. When a teenager in Singapore faced online trolling for calling their bag a luxury item, rather than being dismissive, the brand identified an opportunity not only to rectify the issue but also take a stand. They named Zoe Gabriel a brand ambassador and showcased her modelling a bag launched in support of UN Women's Storytelling for Gender Equality program.

By taking timely action in a social conversation about privilege in an act of spontaneity, Charles & Keith successfully showed themselves as a brand that shows up when needed, independent of corporate initiatives or agenda.

Principle 3: Hand power over to community

Celebrities and influencers are becoming a core pillar of the marketing mix, with brands dropping hot cash on brand immersion trips or unboxing videos. More often than not, the selection criteria are limited to reach, rather than true engagement with audiences.

The power of influence is shifting away from individual personalities to collectives and communities – seven in 10 individuals trust their local communities, while only four out of 10 trust influencers (VMG The Culture of Trust, 2022).

While young people increasingly perceive influencers as salespeople, they look towards their communities for trusted information. As master community builders themselves, young people instinctively trust unpolished but relatable content created by ordinary individuals like themselves, over hyper perfect ads featuring brand experts or influencers.

Maybelline Vietnam tapped into the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt social phenomenon for its Superstay products, partnering with a range of creators in the beauty community to create a collection of authentic and relatable user reviews. This pivot was hugely successful and resulted in a significant 790% increase in sales. By tapping into the relevant communities, it created a space for authentic word-of-mouth conversations and ultimately, invaluable brand advocacy.

Looking ahead: To build trust, behave like a human

Next-generation brands like Glossier and Duolingo are powered by communities, not brand books. At the heart of their approach is a radical embrace of honesty, transparency, vulnerability and spontaneity – intrinsically human values that increasingly define the next frontier of culture.

In a landscape overwhelmed by agenda, misinformation and conflicting perspectives, perhaps it’s time for brands to take themselves less seriously and let human instinct lead the way forward.