Driving trust (and purchase) during a pandemic

Consumers will reward brands that create solutions and support government action, finds Edelman's Trust Barometer.


As the social and economic realities of COVID-19 begin to set in, brands are starting to strike a similar, here-to-help tone in their marketing and communications.

That may be good for business. A majority of consumers believe brands have a role to play in addressing the challenges arising from the pandemic, according to new research from the Edelman Trust Barometer. However, organizations need to be mindful about offering real solutions instead of simply selling a brand message, warns Jennifer Meehan, EVP and national practice lead of brand marketing at Edelman.

Companies that succeed at solving problems and communicating their efforts to consumers without expecting anything in return will likely emerge having built trust during the pandemic, according to Edelman’s research.

The global PR firm polled 12,000 respondents across 12 markets, including 1,000 people from Canada, between March 23 and 26. Sixty-four percent said they believe their country “will not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role in addressing the challenges we face.” In Canada, 65% said a company’s response will have “a huge impact” on their likelihood to buy from that brand in the future  88% said the same in China  while 71% said putting profits before people during the crisis would result in those brands “losing my trust forever.”

What’s more, 26% of Canadians – versus 82% in China and 37% globally report having started using a new brand that has shown an innovative or compassionate response to the virus outbreak.

“With China being a few months ahead of us in the pandemic, we were not surprised to see their numbers considerably higher,” says Meehan. “As they move toward recovery, brand actions during the pandemic are top of mind. We anticipate that our number will increase in this area as we continue to move through the pandemic in Canada.”

Focus on solutions, not selling

The report identifies products, government support and connecting audiences as three ways brands can step up and make a difference in the lives of consumers.

In particular, consumers’ attention has turned to products that address challenges associated with the pandemic. Ninety-one percent of Canadians want brands to produce products that are helpful to them during the crisis, while 58% report not paying attention to new products unless they are designed to help with pandemic-related life challenges.

“Canadians are looking to see what organizations and brands can do to shift what they’re currently producing to meet [today’s] challenges,” says Meehan. She points to the many breweries and distilleries making hand sanitizer and Canada Goose’s commitment to making scrubs and patient gowns as examples of companies taking a leadership role.

There’s an opportunity for brands, because consumers are convinced the problem is too large for governments to handle themselves. According to the research, 93% of Canadians want brands to partner with government and relief agencies to address the crisis, and 50% believe companies are already responding more quickly and effectively than the government to COVID-19.

grab1“The government is taxed. They’re trying to react, they’re trying to help, but they do need help,” says Meehan, noting that some brands  including Unilever,  Subway, Queseda, Kruger and Loblaw   have stepped up to support food banks and others in need. “Whether this is helping the government or helping relief agencies, these are important ways that brands and companies should look to bring solutions.”

Lastly, consumers would like to see brands help them stay connected during social distancing. In Canada, 84% of people want companies to help them stay emotionally connected, and the same percentage would like to see them use social media channels to foster a sense of community and social support, according to Edelman.

For example, Edelman client GoodLife Fitness has launched free instructor-led live fitness classes through its Virtual Fitness studio. Similarly, Meehan sees an opportunity for dating apps and other platforms whose focus is connecting people to leverage their tech and “create solutions to bring those people together.”

Communicate with emotion, compassion and facts

Finding the right solutions is one half of the equation, notes Meehan. Brands must then appropriately communicate them to consumers. Seventy-eight percent of Canadians believe businesses need to ensure the safety of their employees and customers, and 89% would like to hear from brands about what they’re doing to make that happen.

Taking cues from the likes of Loblaw and Kruger, they should also seek to address concerns around product scarcity and supply chain challenges, she says. “Keeping the public informed about how a company is reacting and adapting to these changes is very important to Canadians.”

Edelman’s research shows 87% of Canadians want brands to focus their advertising on how products and services can help people cope with the crisis. Fifty-two percent believe companies should not run commercials or marketing that is humorous or lighthearted, while 51% want to see brands avoid “escapist advertising showing people gathered together using their products and having a good time.”

Canadians are putting the most trust in information they see in traditional media, such as TV, radio and newspapers (45%), followed by email (42%) and brand websites (33%). Meanwhile, consumers said they would “never believe” information coming exclusively from influencers (40%) or social media (36%) to be true.

At the end of the day, Meehan says, communications must always be related authentically, especially as more brands begin sharing their efforts, lest consumers become cynical about their motives.

Brands can win if they are focused on “solving, not selling, and if your intention is we just want to communicate how we’re helping, and there’s no expectation that I’m going to get tons and tons of coverage,” she says. “As soon as KPIs get put on your actions, to me, I think that’s when the public can smell what’s going on.”