Investing in trust

Want to be considered a trustworthy brand? Set aside one-off cause programs for long-term commitments that show the difference your company is making.

Picture your shopper on a Wednesday evening, waiting impatiently at the checkout. They are time-pressed, distracted and, worryingly for marketers, distrustful.

They pull out their wallet, glad to finally be at the front of the queue and almost on their way. But that’s when they get asked, “Would you like to give $1 to…” With so many retailers running these programs, more often than not the customer leaves feeling skeptical about the impact of their donation, says Phillip Haid, co-founder and CEO of Public, a Toronto-based agency focused on helping brands achieve business objectives while supporting causes.

Haid says a recent national Ipsos survey of 1,082 done for the agency found the most common reaction (44%) is feeling pressured to give and 67% felt it was not clear what contribution a retailer was making when asking them to donate, while 62% said they’d be more likely to give if they understood the brand’s role.

“This creates the feeling that companies are [supporting a cause] because they think it is going to make them look good,” Haid says. “It isn’t fair, because companies are doing more today [towards cause efforts than in previous years], but this is an example of how cause marketing can turn customers off.”

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow calls this the “trust deficit” brands have to overcome to connect with this angst-ridden customer, but there are societal forces at play deepening their suspicions that are beyond the control of even the largest corporations.

To start, blame technology, says Yarrow, author of the book Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. Consumers, with their eyes frequently on their smart devices as they walk the street or the store aisle, are more isolated and disconnected from their community, she says. This isolation is, ironically, amplified by the internet, which gives us easy access to information, but allows consumers to get their news from sources that share their point of view, Yarrow notes. So we have fewer collective experiences, further weakening community bonds.

It all nets out to a society of individuals who only trust themselves and people like them, are seeking a sense of control and who are more suspicious, Yarrow says. For example, in 2005, people needed two sources to believe something was true, but today they need five.

“I think it’s a measure of distrust, in that multiple sources are needed for verification,” she says. “They’ve replaced the complete trust we once had for one or two sources.

Containing cynicism

The silver lining in this storm of distrust is that consumers are looking to brands to lead positive change in their lives, with 84% of people polled for the Edelman Trust Barometer saying they believe companies can take action that both increases profits and improves the communities in which they operate.

This is where cause marketing can be a differentiator for brands, but it is a double-edged sword, especially when every brand is trying to stand for something by aligning with a cause.

Haid says consumers can suffer cause fatigue, and when companies ask them to donate to a cause when it isn’t clear what the brand is doing in return, it fuels cynicism and mistrust.

“It must be authentic and reciprocal, or consumers see through it,” he says.

So, to break through in a market where cause marketing is table stakes, leading brands are moving beyond the mindset of having a separate CSR program, instead seeking to make tangible differences, then communicate their efforts to consumers, while integrating cause with their business objectives.

In its Social Impact Study released in October, U.S.-based Cone Communications says this is how brands should approach causes, identifying issues they want to solve, articulating how those issues are relevant to their businesses and to individual stakeholders and providing ongoing proof of the progress made.

In Canada, Haid and Julia Howell, partner, cause and stakeholder engagement at Corktown Seed Company, point to Shoppers Drug Mart, Canadian Tire and Lee Valley Tools as companies making a difference in different ways, but all taking an authentic approach.

Staking a claim

Shoppers Drug Mart brought all of its cause marketing initiatives under one banner in 2011 and simply called it Women. The focus and its relevance to both the company and consumers is clear – 80% of its customer base and 75% of its store team members are female – and the decision to direct all of its efforts to women’s health came after research found many women neglect their health due to a lack of time, information, motivation or programs available to them.

Lisa Gibbs, director, community investment at Shoppers Drug Mart, says the brand’s efforts are supported by targeted donations to related charities, both national and regional, as well as partnerships with organizations such as Women’s College Hospital and Arthritis Consumer Experts. As well, the initiative is actively supported by the C-suite (CEO and president Domenic Pilla has taken part in the Shoppers Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers walk), which Howell says is key for driving an integrated approach to a company’s CSR.

Shoppers also runs events, such as the Shoppers Drug Mart Run for Women, which launched in the spring of 2013 with six runs. This year, it has been expanded to 10, the first taking place in Unionville on April 26, with participant pledges and donations going to local mental health programs in the race cities. At the same time, the company is taking on a healthcare provider role with its arthritis-screening program, launched in September, based on research that found arthritis affects 2.8 million Canadian women.

Gibbs says the company’s Tree of Life program, where store owners select a local women’s charity to fundraise for over four weeks, goes some way to establishing it as a trusted part of the community.

“That kind of programming integrates our social purpose as well as our employee engagement and giving back to the communities we serve into one solid package.”

“Now that pharmacies are becoming primary healthcare providers, [Shoppers is] assuming a larger role as a public service provider,” Howell says. “Their community investment program is working actively in partnership with this broader business strategy. This is the essence of brand ‘purpose.’”

Shoppers Drug Mart is getting good vibes in return. Gibbs says an Ipsos Reid benchmark report, conducted in 2013 for the brand to help determine baseline perceptions of Shoppers, found its community initiatives have a positive effect on brand perception.

The approach also resonates with its core shopper base, with 26% of Shoppers Optimum members being aware the company supports women’s health, compared with a range of 6 to 15% knowing about CSR activities for other well-known retailers, Gibbs says. And internally, the brand image engagement with store and head office employees has increased by 4% and 7%, respectively, between 2011 and 2013.

Leading a movement

Canadian Tire, a brand long synonymous with skates, hockey sticks and bicycles, found a clever way to leverage this history through the “We All Play For Canada” campaign, a multi-level commitment to a cause that builds on its roots.
The brand started the campaign with its “Anthem” spot by agency Cleansheet Communications in August last year, a rallying cry to bring back play. The campaign followed a survey of more than 5,500 Canadian households in 2012, which found children aren’t playing as much as they used to because of barriers such as time, cost and a lack of interest due to technology.

That was the insight for a multi-stage campaign that started with a partnership in 2013 with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), Hockey and Alpine Canada, as well as the sponsoring of high-profile athletes like hockey players Jonathan Toews and Hayley Wickenheiser.

“We really hit the heartstrings with this topic, but you need authenticity and to come from a place where it is natural for your brand,” says TJ Flood, SVP marketing, Canadian Tire Retail. “You have to have both. If a company that doesn’t have that natural or earned trust and heritage came out with a message like this, it is not going to resonate.”

Its pre-Olympic “Team Photo” campaign revolved around the idea of the traditional team photo but showed the community behind Toews, Canada’s alternate captain. The TV spot scored particularly well with consumers, who responded positively to survey questions about it such as “had meaning to you personally” and “gave you an impression that this company understands and supports communities in Canada,” according to Can Tire.

“A big part of our equity is community building,” Flood says. “That was the premise of ‘We All Play For Canada.’ It was our way to try and bring all of this investment in high-profile athletics to resonate with what the core of Canadian Tire’s DNA is.”

As of last year, Canadian Tire had donated around $14 million to help get kids active through its Jumpstart program, which launched in 2005, says Flood, and in November, the retailer helped found the Active at School program, a multi-million-dollar commitment to getting Canadian children and youth one hour a day of physical activity at school. It is backed by the private sector, not-for-profits and the government.

The company also launched the Play Exchange in February with the Government of Canada, the CBC and Lift Philanthropy Partners. The program calls on Canadian individuals, businesses and non-profits to submit an innovative idea to help people live healthier lives, with a $1 million award for the top idea.

Canadian Tire’s community investment has paid off. An Ipsos Reid study from 2013 found 68% of Canadians trust the brand, 78% rate it well for supporting sports organizations and 78% gave it a good rating on its community involvement. Meanwhile, in a consumer indicator study conducted between January and March this year, 75% of Canadian Tire shoppers said they would like to see the company succeed in the future.

Baked-in benefaction

Ottawa-based Lee Valley Tools doesn’t wave a CSR banner, but its reputation as a trusted brand rests instead on treating its employees well (it has reportedly never laid anyone off) and customers with respect, something that Jason Tasse, its chief operating officer, says is even more crucial now that the retail landscape is rapidly evolving.

“Retail is intensifying, it’s changing, there are tougher competitors entering the Canadian market and the consumer is inundated with information,” Tasse says. “Our greatest value propositions are knowledge, great product and trust.

“We firmly believe that with all of this choice, who people choose to give their hard-earned dollars to are those who share a common alignment of interests.”

The 36-year-old retailer of woodworking and gardening tools, with 15 stores across the country, does not run marketing campaigns around its CSR initiatives, but its customer-driven fundraising programs are a key part of how it builds loyalty. (For instance, any time the company gets a customer through a name referral, it donates $5 to its charity pool – distributed to the United Way, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and forest conservation organization Greenwood). Sales of its woodworking and gardening calendars, which it produces, go to charity, as do profits from its in-store seminars, on things such as creating cigar-box guitars.

Since 1996, the company has donated more than $1.7 million to charity via its customer-involved programs, including $240,000 through name referrals, $970,000 from calendar sales and $540,000 from seminar profits.

Well-rooted as a member of its community, Lee Valley can now leverage its loyal consumers to better grasp their behaviours. It recently created a customer advisory board, which has 9,000 members, to get shoppers involved in the company’s strategic planning.

A recent study conducted with the panel, looking into attitudes and behaviours, came back with overwhelmingly positive results, Tasse says, in areas such as “I’m proud to tell people I’m a Lee Valley customer.”

Do what you say (and say what you did)

While the MO varied, with Shoppers Drug Mart creating an umbrella CSR focus, Canadian Tire creating its own Play movement, or Lee Valley tying giving into day-to-day activities, each brand clearly articulated what it was tackling, and how, with transparency on contributions and results.

When done right, social impact efforts can be a game-changer.

“Purpose can drive trust and loyalty for a brand,” Haid says. “But you have to be clear to your customer about what the cause is and why, then articulate the impact you as a brand want to make.”


Consumer angst by the numbers

If you’re wondering how deep consumer distrust and skepticism runs, consider Havas Media Group’s 2013 Meaningful Brands survey. According to its analysis of 134,000 consumers on 700 top brands and advertisers across 12 industry sectors in 23 markets (additional markets, including Canada, are to be included next year), the majority of people would not care if 73% of brands ceased to exist, while only 20% of brands are perceived as making a significant difference in people’s lives. Brands in the technology sector ranked high in the Meaningful Brands Index, with Google taking the top spot, joined by Samsung, Microsoft, Nestlé and Sony.

Meanwhile, about half of Canadians reported being anxious in the JWT AnxietyIndex released in August, and consumer trust in both government and business has plummeted in recent years, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. In Canada, just 51% of the informed public say they trust the government, down 7% from 2012. While trust in business rose four points in the survey, it still sits at just 62%.

JWT Canada’s front row insights team found 68% of Canadians surveyed for its trend report say they fear technology is taking over their lives, a sentiment echoed by the New York-based trend forecasting group K-Hole, in its brand anxiety matrix released in January. “We know our preferences are being calculated and used to predict our next moves, but we still don’t feel like we can take our hands off the joystick,” the group writes. “The job of the advanced consumer is managing anxiety, period.”