As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, becoming an impossibly larger crisis and creating huge uncertainty, brands must consider how to engage with consumers in a way that garners and protects brand trust. Though distinct in nature and breadth from COVID-19, previous crises offer a telling look into the importance of preserving consumer trust. During the 2008 financial crisis, it became clear that crises impact consumer trust. Banks, in particular, are still trying to regain consumer trust. A 2019 Gallup report reveals that only 30 percent of Americans have confidence in financial institutions today—a mere 9 percent above its record low reported in 2012. This remains the case today as 65 percent of consumers say that a brand’s response to a crisis would have a huge impact on their likelihood to purchase in the future. As the typical elements that drive trust—namely, brand purpose, competence, and integrity —become tablestakes during crisis, brands must deliver more to retain and grow consumers’ trust and ensure their own success in the long run. 

Experts note that, in an era of stability, consumer trust is created and fostered through consumers’ direct, day-to-day experiences with brands over time. If a brand can consistently and reliably deliver on its purpose and promises competently and with integrity, it can generate trust that will have a long-lasting impact on its bottom line. Though these pillars of consumer trust account for trust in organizations such as Amazon, Google, and Chick-Fil-A (a few of the most trusted brands in 2020, according to a recent study from Morning Consult, a research and technology firm), we believe that they are not enough to continue to secure consumer trust during times of crisis.

The loss of trust in times of crisis is fed by a perceived erosion of social, communal and financial safety nets, contributing to an overall rise in consumers’ feelings of uncertainty, according to a World Health Organization study. We believe that as doubt grows consumers need more than brands’ overarching purpose, competence and integrity; they need brands to support them in reducing their uncertainty. Brands that fail to do so run the risk of losing consumer trust (and their revenue); brands that succeed can build trust amongst both current and new. Brands can do this by:

Being truthful and showing authentic concern. 

In times of crisis, consumers want brands to acknowledge and show true concern for them and their employees’ vulnerability. They also want brands to be humble, acknowledging the extent of their own vulnerability and uncertainty. Prophet’s Pulse Survey on Defining Trust in Times of Crisis finds that 73 percent of consumers felt it was very-to-extremely important for brands to be transparent about the steps it is taking to keep employees safe, 77 percent find it similarly important that a brand respects its employees’ needs, and 67 percent noted the importance of a brand making them feel safe and secure.

For example, Slack encouraged employees to take care of themselves above all else, allowing flexible and/or reduced hours to ensure that team members can take care of their mental health concerns. Employees were also given a $500 stipend to make their work-from-home arrangements comfortable and were not charged for sick days through April 15. Externally, Slack is supporting all nonprofits and other organizations carrying out critical relief efforts during this time with free access to a Slack paid plan for three months.

Working with agility to finetune its purpose to more specifically assuage consumer anxieties. 

According to Prophet’s Pulse Survey on Defining Trust in Times of Crisis conducted in April 2020,  63 percent of consumers felt it was very-to-extremely important for brands to commit to delivering on its beliefs and values – no matter what – during a time of crisis. Brands must recognize that consumers need stability from the brands they trust; as such, brands must continue to offer their key purpose, tweaking it for the situation at hand.

For example, the Time Out Group’s historical brand purpose has been to help consumers discover the best of the city, delivering on it by offering perspective on the best experiences and places to explore in major cities. As social distancing and shelter-in-place orders took hold, the Group temporarily refined its purpose to be about discovering the best of the city…in consumers’ own homes. It now offers recommendations on the best takeout, best virtual opportunities to explore cities (e.g., virtual museum tours, concert livestreams), and best ways to spend time in your own apartment.

Offering products, services and experiences that instill hope and confidence in the future. 

While economic and social forecasts remain uncertain, brands can offer hope for the future by providing products, services and experiences that aim to lighten consumers’ days. Prophet’s Pulse Survey noted that 61 percent of consumers felt it was very-to-extremely important for brands to inspire them to believe in an optimistic future. Moreover, 62 percent find it just as important that a brand seems like it is financially stable, revealing that consumers want to be reassured that brands will continue to deliver confidently, and well into the future. Consumers trust brands that look beyond this crisis in the products, services, and experiences that they offer.

For example, Delta Air Lines was the first among U.S. air carriers to extend travel vouchers, loyalty program status, and related benefits noting, “…as coronavirus continues to dramatically impact travel across the globe, you don’t have to worry about your benefits – they’ll be extended so you can enjoy them when you are ready to travel again.” United Airlines and American Airlines followed Delta’s lead in the weeks afterward.

Final Thoughts

While brand trust in times of stability is well-understood to rest on the pillars of purpose, competence and integrity, trust in times of crises requires more. As the elements that drive trust in stable times become tablestakes, brands must consider how they can help consumers reduce uncertainty – by being truthful and showing authentic concern, by working with agility to finetune their purpose, and by offering products, services, and experiences that instill hope and confidence in the future.

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