From a post-truth world to a post-trust world

The logical consequence of living in a post-truth world is that it becomes a post-trust world. As people start to question the validity of information and news sources, they also start to question the institutions, businesses and brands they once trusted.

TwentyFirstCenturyBrand’s Neil Barrie on how leaders can evolve their brands to address the inevitable loss of trust following the deliberate compromising of truth

“Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of 2016 – defined as a situation where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. This is hardly surprising in the year in which the UK voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump was elected US president. Both events were surrounded by the spread of misinformation and the blurring of lines between fact and opinion, a blurring that has intensified in the years since.

The logical consequence of living in a post-truth world is that it becomes a post-trust world. As people start to question the validity of information and news sources, they also start to question the institutions, businesses and brands they once trusted.

In America, trust in institutions is at an all-time low. In the UK, perception of the NHS and social care is pessimistic, with 69 per cent thinking the standard of social care services has deteriorated in the past two years. Trust in financial institutions, already severely weakened by the 2008 crash, has taken a huge knock in 2023. The collapse of SVB was worrying, but not so shocking as the safety threat posed by the collapse of Credit Suisse, a 167-year-old institution lost in 72 hours, after surviving years of controversies and spying scandals.

Uncertainty Exhaustion

The lack of trust is taking a huge toll on people’s mental health. Facing a constant barrage of conflicting information about issues such as coronavirus, geopolitical uncertainty and policing, it becomes challenging to discern what is real and what is not. According to an American Psychiatric Association survey, uncertainty was ranked the highest among sources of anxiety, only behind personal finances.

This constant state of uncertainty can lead to anxiety, stress, and even depression. Moreover, the lack of trust in institutions can leave individuals who have suffered trauma feeling isolated and alone, with negative implications for long-term health and wellbeing. We desperately need an antidote to this collective fatigue, so how can businesses and brands adapt and meet people’s needs in a post-trust world?

In an era of distrust, more people put their trust in business. Or do they?

The findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer remain true – 61 per cent of respondents trust businesses more than institutions, and only 51 per cent claim to trust governments. However, most people are sceptical about power, whether it’s political or commercial. Mistrust in businesses is not a new phenomenon, but it has been amplified in recent years with demands for greater transparency. A survey by PwC found there is a glaring gap between the trust consumers have in companies (30 per cent) and the trust business leaders think consumers have in their organisations (87 per cent). Younger generations are becoming increasingly sceptical of the power and motives of large corporations.

Unethical behaviour, false advertising and corporate greed are increasingly under the spotlight in an age where social media and online platforms can spread information rapidly, making consumers more informed and conscious of the practices of the brands they engage with. Brands that engage in false advertising are at risk of significant reputational damage. Barilla and Godiva have both been sued by customers for stating that their US-made goods are produced in Italy and Belgium respectively, and Ryanair’s campaign claiming to be the airline with the lowest emissions was banned by the ASA for misleading consumers.

The role of brands in a post-trust world

Living in a post-trust world has resulted in people anxiously searching for new sources of support and guidance. “Self-reliance” is increasingly aspirational and necessary as people are compelled to take charge of their own futures and seek out alternative solutions. This offers brands an opportunity to step into the space and become influential, essential partners in this quest.

But how do you become one of these brands? TwentyFirstCenturyBrand’s work with many of the world’s most trusted leaders and brands of the 2020s has taught us that they share four pillars of excellence:

1. Purposeful actions build trust

Numerous studies indicate rising a consumer preference for purposeful brands that focus on contributing positively to society as well as making a profit. Viewed through a post-trust lens it’s clear that this isn’t just about people wanting businesses to be more considerate and ethical, it’s also about wanting businesses to fill the gap left by reliable institutions and contribute to a more resilient society.

Case study: Flo Health – performing for trust versus building for trust

In the wake of privacy concerns stemming from the overturning of Roe v Wade in 2022, period tracking app Flo released “Anonymous Mode”, which lets people use the app without linking their data to their name, email address or IP address. The same year saw Flo give Ukrainians free access to its Premium service for three years, extending this to 58 countries to improve menstrual health literacy. This was all based around a strategic commitment to building a better future for female health by helping women harness the power of their body signals. The brand finished 2022 as the world’s most downloaded female health app, reinforcing the fact that a strategic commitment to doing good really does grow trust and, ultimately, revenue.

2. Enabling autonomy through tech 

Social media has contributed to the erosion of trust in traditional structures but tech innovation can play a vital role to build self-reliance in a post-trust world. In China, 53 per cent of people (approximately 500 million) use Alipay every day to do everything from paying their taxes to booking medical appointments. Currently the country’s most trusted brand, Alipay has built its popularity through facilitating autonomy.

Case study: Headspace Health – democratising mental health

In 2021, Headspace and Ginger joined forces to form Headspace Health, the world’s most comprehensive and accessible mental healthcare platform, with both companies being founded only 11 years prior. Now serving over 100 million people worldwide, the platform addresses the growing mental health crisis with a mix of DIY mindfulness and meditation tools and access to human coaching. This has delivered a much-needed sense of empowerment in an area that is traditionally financially and culturally inaccessible to most people.

3. Build for community

As trust has declined in institutions and businesses, people have become more reliant on each other’s opinions. This power of community lies at the heart of brands such as Glossier, Peloton and Airbnb, where peer-to-peer connection and advocacy are central to the business model. Brands in this space give people a sense of ownership, allowing them to amplify and mould the brand in a way that builds mutual value. Similarly, online money saving expert Martin Lewis, named the most trusted person in the UK, equips his MoneySavers community of more than two million people to help each other make prudent decisions and “play the system”, rather than being overwhelmed by it.

Case study: Airbnb – channelling the power of participation

Airbnb’s community-powered business model has been critical to its incredible rise from a niche backpacking app to the world’s most influential and valuable travel brand, IPOing at a value of $100 billion in 2020.

The value it creates for its four million hosts is multi-dimensional. A consistent theme from speaking with hosts is that while many start on the platform because of the financial value, over time the emotional value of the guest interactions become just as important, a theme amplified by the brand’s emphasis on creating a sense of belonging. This ability to increase both financial and emotional resilience are critical to Airbnb’s stellar success in a post-trust world.

4. Connect emotionally through narrative

While tech-enabled, community and purpose-driven elements are critical tools, it’s the brands that tie these together with the timeless power of narrative that will truly thrive in the 2020s.  As Professor Paul Thagard has shown, trust is ultimately an emotional brain state, one that is central to human relationships. In a post-trust world, the emotionally compelling is more influential than objective fact. When brands demonstrate empathy and empower active participation in their narrative, then trust can grow and grow.

Take Pinterest, one of the best-performing consumer tech stocks of 2023, with over 450 million users worldwide. A critical part of that appeal is its consistent narrative of being the most inspiring and positive place on the internet. As Andrea Mallard, CMO of Pinterest says, “Our focus on inspiration is wrapped up in a cultural story around positivity that has had a really big impact on our revenues over time.” 

Case study: Instacart – telling a story that invites the world to share love through food

During the global pandemic, Instacart played an essential role in bringing groceries to people who were unable to leave their homes. Now in 2023, Instacart continues to grow globally as it grows into its purpose of inviting the world to share love through food.

To make that happen, the company must build trust with all sides of a complex, multi-faceted marketplace that includes consumers, retailers, brand partners, its own employees and the shoppers who actually bring the groceries to people’s doors.

Whether through inspiring brand campaigns with Lizzo, renewed shopper commitments, or empathetic initiatives such as Instacart Health which deliver the ingredients for healthier living, Instacart continues to create a consistent and compelling narrative that uplifts its communities and results in greater trust overall.

Answering the call of a post-trust world

Trust in traditional sources of truth is continuing to fall, but this doesn’t have to be bad news for brands. The critical turn that brand leaders have to make is to think less about how to increase people’s trust in their brands and more about how their brands can increase people’s trust in themselves through purpose, community, tech and narrative.

The brands that help facilitate autonomy and self-reliance will be the ones that deservedly thrive in the post-trust era.

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