Brand Trust and Consumer Cynicism

By The Drum, Administrator

September 4, 2008 | 13 min read

Consumers aren’t stupid (well, some are) but most can spot brand bullshit a mile off. If your brand doesn’t meet consumer expectation then you probably won’t be around for long as recent research has shown.

Add to this the ambassadorial powers that consumers are finding from the internet and, if your brand is not genuine, you are likely to be found out quickly... and often ridiculed.

So, what does this mean for marketers foraging in a saturated marketplace, looking for space for their brand to fill?

Well, firstly, it means that brand strategy should be based on something your product or service can deliver, says Karen Perry, deputy managing director of Manchester-based WRG.

“If you position your brand as quirky, be quirky. If you position your brand as premium, make sure your product contains something that justifies this – consider Original Source, a toiletry brand that promotes the integrity of the product, taking its inspiration from the ingredient stories and provenance cues of its ingredients, a positioning that has delivered significant share growth for the brand.”

It may also be useful to consider current brand perceptions within the context of the nation’s overall mood, continues Parry, itself a cyclical phenomenon. “The British public are demonstrating greater cynicism generally – about failed government policies, the credit crunch, falling house prices and rising unemployment. This is reflected in more negative consumer attitudes towards major institutions like banks, energy companies, and brands in general: consumers are not prepared to pay the premium often demanded by brands if they don’t feel it’s worth it.

Consumer Cynicism

“Yet many brands have avoided consumer cynicism by not taking themselves too seriously whilst tapping into genuine consumer insights,” adds Parry. “The Lynx campaign is one such example. Taken literally it communicates immediate success with the opposite sex, a claim that is unrealistic. However, the advertising adopts a tongue-in-cheek delivery of the message, which has given the brand widespread acceptance amongst male audiences. A similar approach has been taken by Pot Noodle, turning the less-than-desirable food quality into a virtue.”

It is such insight that has allowed many brands to build a faithful following, reaching the pinnacle of consumer relationships – trust.

“Consumers are saturated by ‘brands’ and differentiation is, at times, difficult due to a lack of originality and the ‘me too’ culture.” says Good Creative’s Keith Forbes. “However, this apathy has led to a real opportunity for products and services that really seek to reflect their true personality in a unique way. Done well, they still connect and build relationships with their target consumer.

“But if you don’t have the consumers’ trust you’ve got nothing, least of all a brand. To gain trust, fundamentally you have to tell the truth. Every touchpoint needs to come from a core truth that the entire organisation believes in and can act upon.”

This is something that Anna Maclean, strategic planner at Glasgow-based Stand agrees with.

“As in a decent relationship, without trust, there is nothing. Trust takes time, positive experiences and sometimes, reassurance from others. There are consumers who are willing to try new products and experiences without prior knowledge of them but for the masses to be converted brands need to give consumers a reason to believe in them.”

Brand For Nerds

She cites Apple as one brand that has successfully given that reason: “For years, Apple was a brand for nerds, by nerds, but the birth of the first iMac changed that. By considering home computing from a different perspective, Apple embarked on a long-term plan to reposition what having a computer in your home was all about.”

Over ten years later, the iPod has done the same for listening to music. A quick scan down the main street in any city centre will reveal the vast number of people sporting white earphones, not the generic, black variety.

“It is only possible to create an affinity through your marketing communications if what you’re communicating is consistent with reality,” warns Stand’s Maclean. “Shallow communications campaigns that aren’t backed up in the real world don’t last. That’s not to say it isn’t possible to create entertaining, inspiring, captivating communications campaigns that help build a bond with your target market,” she adds. “Rather, if those campaigns are all you have to rely on that entertainment value won’t ever translate into action.

“For some brands, marketing communications campaigns allow them to minimise negativity amongst potential consumers, even those who might never actually buy your product. Think about Marmite, Dr Pepper or the new and improved Skoda. All those brands had major negativity barriers in their way (caused by taste or outdated snobbery). Clever marketing communications campaigns, each of which tackled that potential negativity head-on and acknowledged some consumers’ reluctance to buy that brand, helped those who did feel an affinity with the brand to feel better about themselves and the brand in question. However, in Skoda’s case the marketing communications campaign only worked because of the reality of what Volkswagen had done to the cars within the brand had genuinely given consumers a reason to believe that Skoda was a brand worth considering.”

Consumers may be much more commercially aware through their constant exposure to advertising, tactical marketing and clever packaging, yet Campbell Laird, co-founder of Edinburgh-based Three Brand Design, points to research by the Henley Centre for Social Change (which benchmarks how people ‘feel’) that identifies that in today’s society people trust brands (Kelloggs/Heinz/Nescafe) even more than they trust the police, the bank or even the church...

“In fact, the only non brand that features higher than consumer brands is your GP,” says Laird. “There is a big difference between a product and a brand, there are too many ‘quick wins’ – clever and faddy products which would like to be a brand, but don’t last the test of time. People trust brands and that is built up over of time.

“Therefore, it takes time for true brands to make a mark,” offers Laird. “You need a clear proposition which is motivating and engaging to your target audience, a clear positioning, a set of brand values which can be aspirational but achievable and an appearance which communicates all of these attributes... And then to be a really meaningful brand, it takes some time.”

While time may be an important factor in establishing a well-trusted brand, according to Hemisphere’s Sue Vanden, in today’s socially connected society, brand trust more than often comes through recommendation and advice.

“Consumers are undoubtedly more sceptical towards brands nowadays, almost expecting a gulf between the promise and reality as a rule rather than the exception,” claims Manchester-based Vanden. “This has led to the rise of what you could call the ‘advisory brand’. People don’t know which brand to trust so they look for some form of reference or guidance to tell them what’s good and what’s not.

“The travel industry is one where advisory brands have really made their mark – take the classic Hip Hotel books and Mr& for example. Users trust the Mr & Mrs Smith brand to recommend unique boutique and luxury hotels, feeling that they are being given an ‘in the know’ recommendation from somebody whose judgement they can rely on. For the individual hotels featured on the site, their brand gets a ‘trust bump’ by association with the advisory brand.

“What this means today,” continues Vanden, “is that all aspects of a brand have to work harder and be more robust.


“Yes, marcomms activity has got to be true to the reality of experience as consumers are getting much more savvy about spotting fakery a mile off, but the brand’s success will ultimately live or die by people’s experience of it. Experience creates ‘hearsay’ and what the internet is doing now is amplifying that ‘hearsay’, both positive and negative. People are looking online more and more to find the ‘truth’ about the brands they are thinking of associating with and this is where the growth of advisory brands is really making itself felt.”

This is something that Graham Sass agrees with. The managing director of Cheshire-based agency SASS, says: “A brand is all about ‘a promise delivered’ and if the experience doesn’t match the promise, then repeat purchase, loyalty and advocacy are pipe dreams.

“And, with more and more consumers engaging in peer to peer recommendation, creating brand advocacy, particularly online, is becoming increasingly important. We live in a world where over a billion people worldwide are connected to social media, 78% of consumers trust the recommendation of a friend, 60% trust a consumer opinion online and over a third of people who use online communities, contacts and blogs have received negative brand feedback. Quality dialogue is vital to creating brand trust as well as brand success in an increasingly online world.

“At the end of the day, it’s pretty simple, to get a consumer to trust your brand you have to speak to them – it’s about two way communication. You have to find out what the consumers’ issues are, put strategies in place to address them and then let them know that you have taken action. Essentially, put the consumer at the heart of everything the brand does. Learn from mistakes, avoid hype and be humble, and remember that most consumers are not idiots.

“The advent of social media means that the internet is the best place to do this. By not entering this space, not understanding what is being talked about, not engaging with consumers or giving them what they are looking for, you don’t get hearts and minds.”

The internet itself has been building trust and consumer adulation in recent times. And WRG’s Karen Perry believes that this is down to consumers being more experienced online: “Scepticism and uncertainty are making way for familiarity – this engenders trust.

“Coupled with this, the online experience improves as brands become more sophisticated and web capability increases. But factors which matter offline remain just as important online (if not more so) – customer service, speedy delivery, not too many intrusive ads, good usability. A good experience is more likely to result in a web page being visited regularly, and promoted to “favourites” status. As online brands learn what makes their audiences tick, they are adapting accordingly.

Good’s Chris Lumsden agrees: “When treated well, the internet is one of the best communications mediums for a brand to establish and develop personality as well as engage directly with its consumer.”


However, a word of warning is offered by’s Richard Huntington. He reminds us the oft forgotten rule of marketing… Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.

The Web 2.0 environment can leave brands exposed to consumer opinion. And in a social environment – such as Bebo, Myspace or Facebook – forcing a way into the circle of trust can be a risky strategy.

“Just because you can (put a brand on Facebook), it doesn’t mean you should. At least in traditional media there is a basic level of respect that keeps the communication inside ad breaks and clearly demarcated from the content. But on the internet, brands wander freely around like really irritating guests at a party, intent on looking in every room, having a butchers in your wardrobe and trying on your pants.”

So, even in a cynical society, littered with commercially savvy consumers, it is still possible to build trust – and an ensuing relationship – for your brand. But just be sure that you don’t abuse that trust or it will quickly disappear.


A new era of branding

A recent online poll of 1,000 people, demographically structured to represent the UK population, has revealed some startling truths about how much people trust some well known UK brands.

Most brand owners say that they put the customer first.

Not so according to the research:

20% of people strongly agreed that “In general, companies do not put customers first”. Another 45% tend to agree, and alarmingly, only 8% disagree.

What has happened to all those carefully crafted visions and missions that we pin to the doors of our offices and shops, and print in nice big letters on millions of mouse mats?

Another highlight:

Only 6% of people say that they trust companies as much as they used to.

6% barely registers as anybody at all. Does this mean that corporate Britain has lost all trust? Even if this figure was doubled, it still shows an alarming lack of trust in our brands.

The research also revealed that 81% of people agree that they place more importance on what companies do rather than what they say. Only 3% disagree.

And finally, the research revealed that consumers only give you one chance to get it right. In fact, only 11% will give you more than one chance.

These are just four facts from a large national survey; some of the other results are equally startling, as the table shows.

At the centre of this change are customers themselves. They are empowered, know how to complain, and can read company actions and strategies like an open book. They look at companies from all angles: as consumers, potential employees and investors, and they build up a picture of a brand through the thousands of ways they interact with them or find out about them.

Customers are inverting the customer brand relationship – it is they who are in control. Customers trust brands in the same way they trust other people. People who do what they say they are going to do, maintain consistent values, and behave in a consistent way (personality) are those that are generally trusted. Those that say one thing and do another are those who are abandoned after their one chance.

Peter Nowell, Brand Vista


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