The power of others

July 2011

We have all been there: trying to find the perfect bottle of wine, the best face cream or the most delicious chocolates for someone’s birthday. Those who have not already established firm favorites on the supermarket shelves will often turn to their nearest and dearest for advice. Friends and family, and often also trusted retailers, play a major role when it comes to brand trust, while “second hand” information sources such as media and test reports are generally not as important. Nonetheless, brand manufacturers should by no means ignore the power of reports.

A highly trusted brand must above all stand out from the crowd. In order to achieve this, it must have an unmistakable brand image and superior product quality and must also show that it understands its customers and helps them to overcome both minor and major difficulties in their day-to-day lives. This enables the brand to establish the necessary “uniqueness” in the eyes of consumers, which is a significant driver of trust development. These ideas sum up the last Focus topic on brand trust in June (insert link). However, there are many more hurdles which must be overcome on the road to developing brand trust: trust can be created but it can also be destroyed.

Surroundings contribute to decisions

There are numerous important direct drivers of trust. Contrary to “uniqueness”, which is generally attributable to a real mix of personal experiences, social context and, in positive cases, successful manufacturer communications, these drivers reflect the current social acceptance of a brand. They can support or strengthen the previously established brand image, or in unfavorable instances, sabotage it.

The Brand Trust survey conducted by the GfK Verein determined that, as a rule, the “social acceptance” of a brand is primarily determined by individuals in the immediate social circle. Indirect intermediaries, including media and test reports, expert opinion and internet articles, only begin to come into play in a second phase. Across the eight product groups in the survey, if an individual is developing or already has trust in a brand, on average two-thirds of that trust is attributable to image carriers in their immediate personal surroundings.

One surprising finding is that personal recommendations from friends, acquaintances and relatives are not the only important factors for the social acceptance of a brand. Trusted retailers rank first among the influences which establish trust. Consumers evidently ascribe a degree of competency to retailers that goes significantly beyond the provision of sales areas and products and casts a new light on the importance of distribution in establishing brand trust.

Important advisers: other people

Role models from an individual’s personal circle ranked in second place, so when a certain brand is used by known and trusted individuals, these people become image carriers who consequently increase the level of trust in the brand. The relevance of personal recommendations followed in third place: if friends and acquaintances not only use a product themselves, but also recommend it to others, this helps to boost the brand’s positive image. These findings show how strongly consumers are guided by the views of others when it comes to trust. The “familiarity” of a brand, for example if it has associations with childhood and family, also plays a part in establishing trust.

Overall, the indirect carriers of social acceptance are significantly less important than the immediate surroundings, although this is largely explained by the fact that these sources of trust are not as apparent. When asked about specific everyday consumer brands, the majority of respondents quite simply have no idea what is being or has been reported by the traditional forms of media and on the internet, regardless of whether it is positive or negative coverage. Similarly, only a small number are aware of experts’ recommendations and brand test reports. However, it is necessary to take a closer look, because as the internet, in particular, continues to increase in importance, the distinction between direct and indirect carriers will shift as a result of the possibilities that social media offers.

Major differences between product groups

In addition, considerable differences emerge between product groups, and these are particularly noticeable when looking at the food and body care product groups. The former can be personally tasted and evaluated and are often consumed in a social setting, most notably luxury products such as chocolate and sparkling wine. In this context the consumer not only has direct contact with a brand but is also in a position to immediately discuss this brand with others. Accordingly, here the significance of personal recommendations and respected role models, as well as trusted retailers, is high.

In contrast, body care products such as shampoo and toothpaste are more likely to be used in private. It is also considerably harder for consumers to assess the true quality and long-term effect of these products. Consequently, expert opinion and test reports are much more important for this category. The brand Syoss has been able to successfully put this finding into practice. The company uses hairdressers, who are obviously the leading experts for professional hair care, to advertise its hair care products. The launch of this brand was a complete success, but it must now ensure it meets the expectations it has created on a lasting basis. Only then will other image carriers further promote trust and enable this success to be sustained.

Companies should therefore investigate the extent to which their brands are socially accepted on a regular basis. Is the brand still being actively recommended? Are internet and other media reports positive? Familiarity from the past is not sufficient in order to establish a positive trust image in the longer term. This is demonstrated in the following chart based on two examples from the chocolate product category.

The chart clearly shows that for the most important drivers, brand A, which is most trusted, sets itself apart from its less trusted competitor, brand B. This is particularly true for the “personal recommendations” driver. In comparison, the differences in trust established by childhood and family associations are relatively minor and would probably be almost the same if the familiarity of both brands was surveyed. However, a rift emerges when social acceptance is investigated.

Limitations and opportunities

What does this mean for brand name companies? Admittedly, the majority of image carriers are not directly influenced by companies. They play their “trust carrier role” regardless of the manufacturers’ wishes, although they are no doubt influenced by brands’ successfully implemented marketing measures, which will focus on the aspects detailed in the GfK trust pyramid (link to article). However, it is possible to exert influence in some areas, albeit to a very limited extent: for example, by using credible and esteemed advertising protagonists through partnerships with experts in the relevant product groups. The standing of the retailer can also be exploited effectively, because, as a further survey conducted by the GfK Verein revealed, retailers, like product brands, are trusted to differing degrees by consumers.

Further information on this topic will appear in the next Focus article in August.

Data source: GfK Verein, Brand Trust Survey 2010, Claudia Gaspar

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: