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Building trust in turbulent times

By Max Keane, SVP, director of brand strategy



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June 12, 2020 | 5 min read

One of the most debilitating things about living through this pandemic is the fact it seems that no one really knows what the eff is going on. Or rather, how it will end and what the world will look like when we emerge on the other side. To be a clichéd strategist about it all, it’s the absence of a broader narrative that leaves everyone with a deep feeling of instability.

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When trust in institutions is low, the dividend for brands who can fill the void is high

And while we’d usually look to traditional institutions for answers, we’re faced with relying on structures that are faltering and devoid of public trust.

From contradictory statements issued from the government that change daily (‘the taskforce is closing, no it’s staying!‘) to a media echo chamber that is plagued by fake news, to the point where platforms like Twitter have introduced warning messages on tweets containing misleading information about Covid-19 , how are consumers supposed to know who to trust and where to get their facts from?

In the absence of a narrative for us to hold on to and with trust in traditional institutions at a low ebb, the dividend for brands who can fill this void is high, as we saw when the Steak-umm Twitter account suddenly became a trusted source for substantive information related to the pandemic.

It’s not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing; as we already know that there’s a significant financial dividend at the end of the trust rainbow, with a proven relationship between trust and frequency of purchase.

To be frank, so far most brand work has been characterized by empty posturing. Yes, thank you Big Corporate Home Improvement Store, it’s lovely to have an email from your chief exec reminding me we are all in this together.

There are notable exceptions to this of course, Verizon’s ‘Pay It Forward‘ to support small businesses, McDonald’s ‘Thank You‘ meals for healthcare workers and PepsiCo’s fundraising efforts for the restaurant industry.

These recent efforts feel genuine, generous and driven by good nature.

They are examples of brands living their ethos, rather than projecting faux-empathy. And critically, they are acts of brand leadership, stepping up and filling the existing vacuum with purposeful behavior which will derive a long term trust dividend.

They also offer up a handful of principles that we could all do to heed in guiding any brand behavior over the next few months.


The cognitive load we’re all dealing with is real. Almost everyone has had their life turned upside down, so any brand message should aim to ease that cognitive load rather than add to it. Be single minded, and find ways to keep it simple and straightforward In times like these, less is more.


Beyond the mental strain of it all, we are having to adapt to a new reality be that homeworking, homeschooling (or both) while dealing with new financial pressures. So being useful is going to go a lot further than generic platitudes about togetherness. What can your brand offer that’s relevant and useful at this time?


Our edges are what make us endearing and the same is true of brands. No one expects anyone to be perfect at this time, but trust is built by acknowledging shortcomings and placing emphasis on what you can do. None of us really know what is going to happen next and brands don’t need to pretend that they do. They’ll be much better served acknowledging what they don’t know, showing humanity and focusing on what they can do.

Or put more succinctly: keep it simple, be useful, accept your limitations.

Brands that prioritize this over faux empathy will be well positioned to draw down from a trust dividend on the other side, and leave us all in a better place.

Max Keane, senior vice-president, director of brand strategy, Arnold Worldwide

Open Mic Marketing

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