Trust has to be earned

June 2011

Trust is easily and quickly lost, but to establish or rebuild it takes time and effort. It is the most important capital for manufacturers and retailers. In practice, however, the necessary attention is not always paid to consumer trust. Often it is taken for granted and not explored in any depth. What must a brand actually offer nowadays, in order to earn and retain the trust of consumers?

To answer this question, the GfK Association carried out an empirical baseline study last summer. The analysis was based on a survey of 3,551 individuals, which generated 10,653 evaluations of 48 major brands. These brands were not selected from product groups that are generally immediately associated with the topic of brand trust on account of their evident financial risk, for example cars, jewelry or consumer electronics. We were actually more interested in establishing the situation for everyday products. A broad spectrum of different ranges within the daily consumer goods segment was investigated in the following eight product groups: roasted coffee, fruit juice, sparkling wine, pasta, chocolate bars, laundry detergent, shampoo and toothpaste.

Brand trust was measured using the special GfK Brand Trust Index, which was developed through comprehensive literature research and preliminary investigations. It is based on three pillars and can be applied universally to a wide range of product categories and industries (see image).

The recorded values of the Brand Trust Index reveal considerable differences between brands. What are the reasons for this? Why do consumers have a very high level of trust in some brands and a more moderate level in others? In other words, what are the main driving factors behind brand trust?

The most important requirements

In order for a brand to be trusted by consumers, the main requirement is the perception and conviction that it has distinct advantages over others. This “uniqueness”, which sets one brand apart from others from the subjective point of view of the consumer, can be attributable to the product itself, an element of the product or the manufacturer image. However, these factors are not all equally weighted, but reveal a clear ranking order which is best represented in pyramid shape as it comprises four different levels. The lowest level has by far the greatest influence on brand trust and the top level is least important.

Upon closer inspection, it is clear that the structure of the brand trust pyramid corresponds with the history of brands. Initially, a brand, with its clearly recognizable and consistent appearance, was exclusively a type of quality promise for consumers, providing the assurance that they were not spending their limited resources on unreliable, substandard products. Hans Domizlaff, the “founding father” of brand engineering, stated that, according to the first rule of natural brand building, “The prerequisite for natural brand building is product quality.” Source: Hans Domizlaff-Archiv

The brand world diversified over time and consequently so did the demands placed on brands and their function. The ethical profile – the very top of the pyramid – is the element that has only become influential in this context comparatively recently. It only developed, when the drawbacks of consumerism began to be more widely discussed.

What are the implications for marketing? Principally, a pyramid is constructed from the bottom to the top and if the foundation begins to crumble, the entire structure above it soon collapses. Consequently, the base is a “must” and every additional level is “optional” for trust marketing, with the importance declining from the bottom to the top of the pyramid. This means that exceptional product quality and a clear brand profile are the absolute foundation of all trust. A customer buying a highly trusted brand wants an exceptional product and wants to know what this particular brand represents; a crystal clear image makes the brand memorable.

A good sailor only reveals his true colors in a storm

A highly trusted brand not only meets all the base requirements, but distinguishes itself further through social competence. This concerns factors that are closely linked to the topic of risk aversion: a good reputation reassures consumers that they are not making a mistake, for example when the brand is being used in a new or special situation. There is an old German proverb that says: “A good sailor only reveals his true colors in a storm”, and this is precisely where major opportunities can be unearthed for highly trusted brands. Whether it is a first date, a meeting with the boss or a gift for the mother-in-law, highly trusted brands provide the necessary social confidence. Although consumers might potentially select cheaper, less trusted brands on a day-to-day basis for themselves, this is not as likely to be the case for special occasions, because when it counts the brand should offer “guaranteed success”.

Expectations go even further than this: a highly trusted brand must clearly show that it understands its customers in every respect and is in tune with their small, everyday difficulties. Everyone hates it when a forgotten tissue in the trouser pocket disintegrates in the washing machine. For this reason, “Tempo” launched an ad campaign addressing this issue in 2002 and announced that this would not happen anymore with Tempo tissues. The idea of turning a simple pleasure product such as chewing gum into a practical dental hygiene product for those on the move demonstrates a true understanding of consumers. These are just two examples which show how brands can successfully build on the base properties that establish trust.

Only after that does the brand-shaping role of tradition, which is commonly drawn on by companies, come into play. In terms of trust, this is just another way to differentiate and has the same level of importance as innovation and transparency. This means that today no brand should rely solely on its long-standing tradition.

Duty before pleasure

A farsighted manufacturer will also not neglect the top of the pyramid. Although they should only turn their attention to these elements once the base requirements have been fulfilled, they are important instruments for the future strategy of strong brands. Brands with clearly discernible ethical profiles give consumers a clear conscience as well as a positive feeling. And although the significance of this brand aspect is still relatively low for establishing trust at present, intense media debate means that more and more consumers consider it increasingly important that their brand is not only innocent of any wrongdoing, but also actively does good. However, even when they fulfill ethical criteria, brand manufacturers are not yet effectively publicizing their social commitments. The survey showed that very few consumers are aware of the social activities of consumer goods manufacturers. This is a major area of potential for brands to raise their profile on the basis of outstanding ethical commitment. As the ethical profile of a brand becomes an established element of brand trust, over time the top of the pyramid will also become broader. And so the story of the brand continues.

To return to the base requirements; it might be expected that the performance level will be relatively similar among those brands with a strong reach. But this is not the case. Two examples illustrate major differences in the performance of brands on the GfK trust pyramid. The profiles of the two brands in the image are real anonymized cases from the study.

It is clear that the one brand records desirable values in the evaluation of the important base factors: almost 70% of respondents give outstanding ratings for the clarity of the brand image and the superiority of the product’s quality (values 7 and 6 on a 7-point scale). The brand even achieved an exceptional 75% for the category of “good reputation”. It is therefore successful in terms of fulfilling the essential requirements – the “duty” element. However, when it comes to the “pleasure” factors, for example assessing the brand’s ethical value, the ratings are sparser, even for the trusted brand. This “profile field” is not assessed positively or negatively, but simply not at all. This area still holds considerable potential for further competitive advantage. In contrast, brand B still urgently needs to work on its base if it hopes to become a highly trusted brand.

Recommendation, internet & Co – carriers or saboteurs?

Other than “uniqueness”, which is usually produced by a real mix of personal experience values, social context and, in the positive cases, successful manufacturer advertising, there are also direct vital image carriers. They reflect the current social acceptance of a brand and can either support the already established image or, in unfavorable instances, sabotage it. They also highlight those sources or carriers to which customers pay particular attention. For example, do they observe who still uses the brand? Or how trustworthy the retailers appear to be? Or what is on the internet? The shared experiences of other customers (or non-customers) also strongly influence the opinions that individual consumers hold about the brand – either positively or negatively.

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

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: