We live in an era of distrust. Economic and political upheavals, along with recent consumer, technology and third-sector scandals, have shaken our faith in the institutions that shape our societies, but businesses can, and should, play a key role in restoring consumer trust.

For almost two decades, PR firm Edelman has published an annual Trust Barometer that tracks levels of public confidence across the four institutions of business, government, NGOs and media. For years, trust levels were relatively stagnant, but over time the majority of countries surveyed have moved into so-called “distruster” status.

The repercussions of fake news and the Facebook scandal undermined confidence levels like never before. Trust has been deeply shaken as consumers realise technology platforms are not always our friends, and the algorithms they use to serve up news behave differently to journalist-driven media. Even a deep-seated faith in charities has been eroded as the behaviour of NGO leaders causes reputations to falter.

Believe in businesses

Yet among the turbulence, one constant remains. Even though distrust of business persists in around half of markets worldwide, when compared to the institutions of government and media, it fares well as a trusted pillar. “Crucially, what our data has shown year after year is that people believe businesses can lead the way by doing the right thing, by communicating their values and by taking a position on matters of purpose,” says Satyen Dayal, Senior Director at Edelman.

In a world where credibility is at an all- time low, brand purpose and transparency in business are therefore paramount and the message for big, corporate brands is striking. On a global basis, two thirds of those surveyed look to company leaders to speak up directly on the pressing issues facing society and to support topics that matter to communities. CEOs recorded a seven-percentage point gain since 2017, and successful entrepreneurs now register credibility levels of 50% or higher.

Not all business sectors are trusted equally, though, according to the barometer. Since 2017, trust has declined in the technology sector and is stagnant in the financial-services sector, whereas energy and education have seen an uptick. Faith in leadership is in doubt, with three quarters of consumers finding employees more believable than CEOs. On top of that is a bigger picture of trust ebbing away from institutions all together and towards individuals, some of whom may well be linked to companies, or just as likely not.

So, what does this mean for fledgling businesses? How can businesses get to grips with the issues around trust and what, if any, opportunities stem from a lack of it?

Trust flows

Trust is a complex and personal emotion. “We are no longer living in an age where it is managed from the top or held in the hands of the powerful few,” says Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together – and Why It Could Drive Us Apart.

Botsman thinks of it as an energy that flows from place to place. Rather than a deficit, it is instead shifting, flowing sideways through platforms and individuals rather than up and down as before. It’s an insight that has driven the rise of platform-based businesses. Trust serves as a fundamental component of companies looking to harness the power of the network effect.

Take short-term accommodation platform, Under the Doormat, which is based in Workspace’s The Light Bulb in Wandsworth. It launched four years ago to offer Airbnb rentals in premium homes in London.
 

Homeowners with really nice homes are never going to rent out their homes unless they have a high degree of reassurance it will come back to them in the way they left it. We provide that reassurance for both the homeowner and the guest.

Merilee KarrCEO and Founder


Under the Doormat’s focus is on brand building and personal service, meeting renters when they arrive in London and sharing local knowledge to help them settle in.

 

At a much earlier stage of its development – but also relying on mutual goodwill – is newcomer app, Kleender, recently launched in the UK, Spain and France. Based in the Barley Mow Centre in Chiswick, the community-based app connects homeowners with domestic-service providers such as cleaners, nannies and dog walkers.
 

It was getting quite busy downstairs as we took on more people, so we decided to invest in going upstairs. Club was great when we were starting out and there were only a few of us. You're surrounded by other exciting startups, sharing ideas, but we reached a point when we were ready to shift into our own space.

Nacho CarreteroCEO and Founder

Individual responsibility

Competence, reliability, integrity and benevolence are four traits that make up trustworthiness, according to Botsman. “It is the responsibility of every individual within the organisation to be trustworthy in their decisions and behaviours.”

Consumers tend to agree. In Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer, four fifths of those interviewed believe employees should speak up if their companies are doing wrong, and two thirds believe employees should pressure management to weigh in on social issues. “Every employee is a brand ambassador, whether they like it or not,” notes Tash Pennant, a consultant who specialises in employee engagement.

It is easier to ensure employees behave responsibly at the start of a company’s journey. “There will be one or two partners who know, like and trust each other but as the business starts to scale, you need to hire in. The ‘know/like/trust’ factor is replaced with a focus on the skills required to drive the business forward and therefore on competence, confidence and cultural fit.”

If employees are to successfully represent the brand as it grows, the employee experience should mirror that of the customer experience so that the company’s values are understood. “People in organisations who know, agree or align with the company’s mission and vision are the best ambassadors for the brand. That’s why effective employee engagement across a multi-generational and diverse workforce is crucial within organisations,” says Pennant.

Disruptors thrive

In sectors where historic incumbents have behaved badly, distrust is creating a space for new businesses to differentiate.

Urban Jungle is a start-up selling home-contents insurance based in Club Workspace at Kennington Park. CEO and Co-founder, Jimmy Williams, says the loss of faith in large financial brands has created opportunities for fintech brands and companies to start from scratch.

“We can create a clean trust profile where there are no scandals. For example, we weren’t implicated in the 2008 global financial crisis and there are no lawsuits against us for diversity claims, so we can start from a clean slate,” he says.

As with platform-based companies, confidence is a vital component if the business is to thrive. “As an insurance business, we’re asking customers to take out a contract with a company so that when you’ve paid a small sum of money, they will pay you a large sum if something goes wrong. That requires a lot of trust,” says Williams.

Send out the right signals

The obvious disadvantage for new businesses is that the brand is unknown. Here’s where trust indicators step in.

“Start-ups are always looking for ways to demonstrate they are credible through what I call trust signals,” says Botsman. “These are clues or symbols that we use to decide whether we can trust a company or person, or not.” Typical signals include known names on a start-up advisory board, media logos on a homepage or a partnership with a known brand.

Urban Jungle takes what could be termed a typical approach. “We try to build in as many trust triggers as we can when we’re communicating,” says Williams, from certification prominently displayed on its website to leaning heavily on reviews and highlighting press coverage as a way to borrow the credibility of publications. “Over time we can work these into our brand and go up against bigger brands that have spent a century or more building their reputation.”

In her role as Chair of the UK’s Short- Term Accommodation Association, Under the Doormat’s Karr is steering an industry- level initiative to reassure hosts and guests through a third-party accreditation scheme. Now in beta, the scheme is a code of conduct for both homeowners and rental guests. “It’s an element that helps to build trust,” she says.

“All it takes is one disaster by a bad host or guest for it to be lost in the sector. The accreditation scheme is there to help customers know that the companies which manage short-term rentals do so to the highest standard so a disaster doesn’t happen.”

As these start-ups demonstrate, the issue of trust needs to be at the heart of growth plans for any business. Baking confidence into company DNA from the very beginning is a must-have for current and future credibility.

You can discover more insights into issues around public trust in business at edelman.com/trust-barometer. How can businesses win over increasingly cautious customers? Share your thoughts by tweeting us @WorkspaceGroup