Canada’s most-trusted brands, pre- and post-COVID-19

This year, the Gustavson School of Business conducted two surveys to help trace changes in consumer trust.

The University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business has issued its annual listing of the country’s most-trusted brands. Over the last few years, the list has been dominated by retailers and membership-based organizations.

This week, after having conducted initial research in January and February – shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada – the business school released an updated survey tracking changes in consumer trust among a subset of brands over the course of the crisis.

“We had some guesses as to which brands we thought were actually building trust during the pandemic, and others would be losing, so we wanted to validate that,” Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business, tells strategy. He adds that brands that have maintained or built trust in the pandemic will likely be the quickest to recover from the crisis.

The pre-pandemic ranking (a sample of 342 companies ranked by 7,800 Canadian respondents) contains many of the usual suspects: MEC and the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) tied for first, followed by Costco at number three. Dyson – added to the survey for the first time this year – was the fourth-highest-ranked brand overall, making it the leader in appliances and the most-trusted product-based brand in Canada. (See below for a complete list of the top 10 brands and other results).

The companies at the top of the post-pandemic survey, conducted in April, are vastly different: Canada Post ranked number one, followed by Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix in second, and CTV News in third. They were followed by Costco and The Weather Network, which tied for number four.

The differences are in part due to limitations in the data. According to Klein, a smaller number of respondents (1,050 Canadians) answered fewer questions on 105 different brands (roughly one-third of the original sample) in order to focus on categories most likely to be impacted by the pandemic, such as hotels, telcos, food and drug retailers and financial services. As a result, companies such as MEC and the CAA were not included in the second survey.

But together, the studies reveal several notable trends. For one, before the pandemic hit, brand trust was at an all-time low.

“It’s a general problem that we’re seeing across the board in our society,” says Klein, noting the trend is consistent with other studies, such as Edelman’s Trust Barometer. “As our societies are becoming more polarized, people have less faith in what they’re hearing, less faith in the media, and overall we’re seeing that erosion of trust spread.” (The surveys’ different methodologies don’t allow for a post-pandemic comparison.)

Counterintuitively, trust in household cleaning products, including Clorox and Lysol, declined during the pandemic, a finding Klein attributes to a lack of availability. He says brands that were unable to manage their supply chain and meet demand suffered on functional trust, one of the three trust dimensions examined by the business school. “To trust a brand, it has to be available to us. If it’s not available, that kind of undermines the trust we have in the brand of being there when we need it.”

Meanwhile, Klein says trust in Amazon, whose sales surged as consumers increasingly shopped online, suffered during the crisis for other reasons: as the prices of certain products shot up, so did consumer perceptions of “price gouging” on the platform; as demand surged, fulfilment times suffered. More importantly, Amazon was accused of failing to protect the health and safety of its employees, undermining one of the main drivers of values-based trust.

For the first time this year, the pre-pandemic survey showed food and drug retailers were the most-trusted category across all three trust dimensions. The retailers that have demonstrated a commitment to their employees have only climbed higher since, though only a select few (Costco, Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix) made the top ten.

“We did see the positive movements, but there are limits to how far any one brand can move on any particular year,” the dean says. “We’re also really interested in seeing the stability of those moves.”

For example, Klein says Loblaws gained trust by treating its employees well, namely increasing wages and implementing measures to protect them. However, the retailer has now ended employee pay increases (as have Sobeys and Metro) which could jeopardize those gains. “It’s one thing to raise people’s salaries. It’s quite a different one to drop them.”

Generally speaking, Loblaws tends to move around a lot within the rankings, according to Klein. “Sobeys [has been] much more consistent over the years in terms of the trust that people have in them. Loblaws has seen quite a bit of variability. I think it’s because, particularly in Ontario, there’s such a strong presence in the community that when something happens that’s negative, it has a very strong impact.”

Top 10 most trusted brands pre-pandemic (among 342 companies)

1. MEC, CCA (tied)
3. Costco
4. Dyson
5. Home Depot, Sony (tied)
7. Canadian Tire
8. Shoppers Drug Mart/ Pharmaprix
9. Home Hardware, Lego, Bose, Band-Aid and Kleenex (tied)

Top 15 most trusted brands post-pandemic, among 105 companies (versus pre-pandemic ranking)

1. Canada Post (79)
2. Shoppers Drug Mart/ Pharmaprix (8)
3. CTV News (79)
4. Costco (3)
4. The Weather Network (39)
6. CBC/Radio Canada News (16)
7. Interac (16)
8. VIA Rail (16)
9. Global News (149)
9. Cirque du Soleil (51)
11. IGA (39)
12. Loblaws (200)
13. Sobeys (23)
13. The Real Canadian Superstore (39)
15. Metro (23)
15. Purolator (70)
15. FedEx (70)