We just don't trust like we used to, it seems. According to a recent study, two-thirds of the world's countries fall into the 'distruster' category. A separate study from last year indicated that only 3% of Americans, British, Italians, Swedes, French and Italians say that 'business businesses are very honest'. In Germany, the number was 1%, and that was before VW's Dieselgate (perhaps they knew something we didn't). But the most recent report from a multi-year study called New Realities shows how, when it comes to 'trust' or the lack of it, China 'leads' the way. For China, in just the past two years, the percentage of people who don't trust information from manufacturers has increased a staggering 240%, well ahead of India, Brazil, the US, Russia and the UK. Why the sudden spike in China? And in the information age, what does it mean for our assumptions about the role of information and trust-building in marketing?
One reason would be the brand safety scandals, so commonplace in China they have become a kind of rhythm of life. The melamine milk scandal, the Fonterra botulism scandal, the carcinogenic Bawang shampoo scandal, the dead pigs in the Shanghai river scandal, the KFC expired chicken scandal. And more. Each of these scandals hits twice; the first blow is the breaking news itself and the second is the inevitable evasion of the news by the brand's PR team. A dual action grinding down the brand's hard-earned equity.
Another is that consumers are also asking for more. The extent to which consumers agree they are 'holding brands to higher standards' has increased by 15% since 2013. And people want more from brands, not less. Over the past six years, the importance of brand names and brand reputation matters has increased by 48%.
What's interesting about this slide in trust is that it is happening in the midst of unprecedented access to information from brands. Compared with six years ago, people in China are 46% less reliant upon observation and opinions from friends and family to tell them about brands. Instead, over this period, nine out of ten people surveyed say that there is much more information about brands and products than before and that if they have more information, they will trust brands more. This theme is backed up by a seemingly growing number of brand experts who say that the key to building trust is through more information-sharing and using 'nonadvertising' channels such as third-party endorsers and key opinion leaders.
This situation seems paradoxical. If information is helping, then trust scores should be going up, not down. We're drowning in information. It's everywhere. In China, every brand has a Weibo account and uses it as a kind of 'digital newspaper', to post information-dense messages about new products, services and the like.
And if it were as easy as organising a suite of key opinion leaders to do your bidding for you – spreading your product news to their followers – then trust scores would also be going up. Because every China PR strategy these days starts with 'Our KOL strategy'. But this is not what we see.
Trust and the creating of a trustworthy image for a brand are strategic matters. The most trusted brands in China, brands like beverage giant Kangshifu and Ping An insurance, have significant and credible alignment between their positioning, advertising and social. They do social and have KOLs, but they build their trustworthy brand images from stories that are light on information but strong on emotion.
Contrast this with another by-product of the shift to digital, namely promotions. Some 40% of consumers report that this is the reason they pay attention to online information – to learn about promotions. And I don't think promotions will do much to enhance trustworthiness.
Could it be that, ironically, although consumers and experts alike say that rationality and information help build trust, the opposite is the case?