Earning Consumer Trust Starts with Building Genuine Connections

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Feeling a little cynical these days? You’re not alone. We live in an era of declining trust in just about everything, according to a report released earlier this year by communications firm Edelman. It found that governments and media are all being viewed with an unprecedented level of public skepticism.

Businesses fare little better, as the report also concluded that there are new expectations of corporate leaders. Nearly seven in 10 respondents said building trust is the top job of CEOs, ahead of creating high-quality products and services.

Brands certainly don’t lack for firepower when it comes to communicating with consumers. So it would be reasonable to assume that their armies of talented, tech-savvy marketers would be addressing this trust gap head on. And that assumption would be wrong. In a market where brands face credibility issues, many have opted instead to double down on fostering mistrust. In the last year alone, we’ve seen tone-deaf ads, patronizing branding and packaging, and even ads with racist undertones.

This is not to put the blame squarely on marketers. Anyone who has to move at light speed, take risks, and meet ever-growing KPIs in this ultra-competitive industry is going to make mistakes. But what we’ve seen lately goes beyond that. We have mountains of data at our fingertips and the ability to know consumers in ways that would have seemed impossible only a decade ago. To launch a campaign that actually offends and angers people in spite of all this is bad planning and execution, plain and simple. And taken together, these high-profile mistakes are giving the marketing profession and, by extension, the brands that rely on it a steadily worsening reputation.

There’s another factor at play—the ongoing challenge for the ad industry to improve diversity. According to a Journal of Advertising Education report released in March, the problem goes beyond the many proven benefits that come from fostering a diverse workforce. “The advertising industry has been charged with and trusted to reach and influence an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse populace, but lacks credibility given the limited extent to which it has impacted the color line within its own industry,” the authors state. In other words, the profession has created its own blind spots, which likely contribute to the high-profile missteps cited above.

To address this growing gap between brand message and public sentiment, the industry must hit the reset button, get back to its roots, and work to better understand, engage, and win consumers.

Step one is to bring them into the conversation earlier, and more often. That means going beyond focus groups and social sentiment analysis. It’s about giving them an actual seat at the table during the ideation and creative planning stages. Engaging their customer base will help brands create stronger, more informed marketing campaigns, define the right targets, and connect in a way that’s more meaningful. It may even open up new opportunities.

Further, engaging a wide and diverse set of consumers throughout the development process can help brands spot and avoid stepping on landmines. Or, if they do, help minimize the backlash, given the deeper ties they will have formed with consumers.

Step two is to step back and cast a critical eye on exactly who you’re speaking to. Marketers know all too well the damage that can be done with a creative brief jam-packed with data and insights, but which ends by asking an agency all the wrong questions. The same is true of research. Even the most well-thought-out survey means little if the great questions are being addressed to the wrong people.

Avoid that mistake by taking a hard look at your surveys. Remember the many polls that predicted Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 U.S. election? Clearly, they were mistaken, and one expert points her finger at people who were too comfortable in their expertise, and who used that to make (incorrect) guesses at how people would behave in the voting booth. The lesson for marketers is clear: Don’t bet your reputation on preconceived notions of what consumers might think.

Instead, give people room and space to really explain their views, and avoid the temptation to focus research dollars solely on your bullseye audience set. Casting a wide demographic net that ensures diversity in gender and race will paint a deeper and more accurate picture, while helping to build strong connections with consumers. 

Not all the factors contributing to declining trust levels are under a marketer’s control. Whether it’s social media giants playing fast and loose with personal data or politicians behaving in a way that’s frankly embarrassing, there’s a lot of blame to go around. Those factors are difficult enough to contend with, which is why it’s so important for marketers to nail the things they do have control over, and that starts with building genuine connections with consumers.

The call to action is clear. Build trust now so that when the day comes that your brand is under a negative spotlight, you’re better equipped to move on quickly, and with your reputation intact.

Steve Mast is the president and chief innovation officer of Delvinia, an innovative data collection firm. The company has recently enhanced its product portfolio with the launch of Methodify, an automated research platform that enables marketers to gain actionable consumer insights within 24 hours. Mast can be reached at smast@delvinia.com.

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