Trust in business stable, but at a ‘very low point’

Proof Strategies' 2021 CanTrust Index shows large businesses gained little trust from Canadians' during a tumultuous year.

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Businesses failed to record significant trust gains with Canadians over the course of the pandemic’s first year, finds a new report by Proof Strategies, though some sectors have had more success than others and small businesses continue to outperform large corporations.

“Trust in business as a whole is stable, but it’s stable at a very low point,” says Bruce MacLellan, CEO of the PR and communications firm, pointing to one of the findings of its 2021 CanTrust Index. “Business is the least-trusted of the institutional sectors we track. It’s true that it’s stable, but it’s also basically in the basement.”

The country’s overall CanTrust Index score, measuring an overall level of trust across institutions and segments, remains relatively stable at 37%, down from 38% last year.

Meanwhile, Canadians’ willingness to believe that large corporations will do the right thing for the country and society has only increased from 26% to 27% – even as trust in financial markets to “be competent and do the right thing” increased from 36% to 43% over the same period. For the first time this year, Proof measured trust in management and boards of directors, which were also low, with respective scores of 28% and 26%. Trust in small- and medium-sized businesses remains higher than large corporations and saw more significant gains, moving from 38% to 41% over the last twelve months.

CanTrust IndexThe pandemic and its economic ramifications, as well as the boiling over of a new movement for racial equity, have had varying impacts across business sectors. “So that aggregate, the overall being stable, doesn’t mean there aren’t some things in motion in the background,” notes MacLellan. “The pandemic is challenging all leaders to understand that trust will move more in a crisis, either upward or downward based on your actions.”

Streaming services, pharmaceutical companies and hospitals experienced some of the most significant trust gains, followed by ecommerce, cannabis producers, telecommunications, as well as grocery and food retailers. Trust in social media platforms remained stable, while trust dropped across sectors such as insurance, banking and airlines.

Trust across sectors_CanTrust Index

Trust in large corporations has remained low every year since Proof launched its index in 2016 and has never exceeded the 28% achieved in 2018. The fact that it remained largely unchanged over the last year suggests large businesses have collectively failed to make the most of the opportunity Canadians were willing to afford them in the fight against the pandemic.

Research conducted at the onset of COVID-19 found Canadians saw an important role for companies in supporting them and the country – and were willing to reward those that did – as the pandemic was deemed too large an issue for governments to handle by themselves.

When asked what behaviour will make a company or brand more trustworthy, Canadians cite having “values close to my own” (67%), a focus on employee safety and wellbeing (67%), having a leader that communicates openly (63%), advocating for positive social change (58%) and committing to inclusion and diversity (57%). Quebec residents, in particular, are more likely to trust companies that share their values and show advocacy for social change.

With this mind, MacLellan believes SMEs have the best potential for trust growth, because they can more easily connect with stakeholders and the public on issues relating to values, community engagement and support, as well as equity and fairness. “They’re closer to the ground, closer to people, more flexible and able to connect with the local audience,” he says.

Proof Strategies’ annual index tracks levels of trust across different Canadian institutions, including businesses, government and the media, as well as how they vary across different segments of the population. The 2021 report was based on a survey of 1,517 Canadians conducted between Jan. 8 and 20.

Importantly, it also identified several trust “gaps” between various segments of the population. For one, there are gaps of 10-15% differences in trust between people earning $100,000 per year – who exhibit greater levels of trust – and those in lower-income groups. “There’s an equity issue here – people are not feeling that they’re getting a fair shake.”

Younger generations also report having lower levels of trust than Boomers, which is somewhat expected, as trust tends to increase with age and experience, says MacLellan.

“The question mark, though, is: are you having a largely positive experience in life? If we find that there are growing equity issues or barriers to opportunity issues, then there could be a longer lasting mistrust among people.”

Finally, there’s also what he refers to as an “East-West divide” in trust in Canada. While trust in the three prairie provinces is very low across the board – a result of economic difficulties in the oil patch – trust in Ontario and the eastward provinces is stable or growing.