Who do you trust?

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, it is reshaping attitudes toward the public and private sectors. Governments are expanding their role, regulating businesses, directing health efforts and supporting laid off workers. Companies are struggling to stay afloat, grappling with the challenges of reopening and complying with the “new normal” of safety protocols and regulations.

How are citizens responding to these shifts? Not surprisingly, they are placing their trust in whoever helps them weather the storm. In most countries, that is the state. According to a survey of 13,200 people in 11 countries, trust in government is up 11 points to 65 per cent globally, the highest level in twenty years. Government trust increased by double digits in six of 11 markets, including the UK (24 points), Canada (20 points), Germany (19 points) and South Korea (16 points).

As confidence in the public sector rises, trust in the private sector has waned. Fifty per cent of respondents believe business is failing to put people before profits, 41 per cent say they are not adequately protecting workers and customers, and 46 per cent say they are letting down suppliers and customers by denying them flexible payment terms. While 47 per cent believe national political leaders are doing an outstanding job tackling the crisis, only 29 per cent believe that CEOs and business leaders are doing the same.

The message to business is clear: if you are not part of the solution, customers will not trust you. And if they do not trust you, they will not stay loyal to you. An earlier poll by the same firm found that 65 per cent of Canadian respondents said a company’s pandemic response will have “a huge impact” on their likelihood to continue purchasing that brand. Seventy-one per cent said putting profits before people would result in those brands “losing my trust forever.”

Companies therefore need to develop a “trust strategy”, to both retain and build trust through the different phases of the pandemic. This can involve multiple elements, including aligning themselves with trusted actors, like government and health officials, contributing to fighting the pandemic by producing goods or supplying services, and ensuring the safety and support of employees and customers by supplying PPE, raising wages or minimizing the spread of disease.

Early examples of successful trust strategies included breweries like Minhas and perfume makers like LVMH, that both pivoted from their core business to making hand sanitizer. They included companies like Lululemon that closed stores yet kept employees on the payroll, and grocery giants like Loblaws that raised the pay of their employees. They included social media companies like Facebook that matched donations for COVID-19 relief, and tech companies like Microsoft that provided free Teams subscriptions to facilitate working from home.

But smaller businesses – indeed, every business – can develop a trust strategy and find ways to contribute. Restaurants can host “Social Distance Dining Nights” where part of the profits help the local food bank. Tech companies can partner with local school boards to get computers for low income students. Fabric suppliers can offer remnants free to clothing manufacturers to produce non-medical grade face masks, which in turn could be given to shoppers when entering local retail stores.

Good deeds must not happen in a vacuum, however. A successful trust strategy includes a well thought out communications plan to showcase how your company is solving, not profiting from, the current crisis. And they must strike the right tone. Empathy is critical but messages cannot appear manipulative. If a business claims it is “there for you”, it must offer concrete proof, not empty words.

Communications must also respect customers’ circumstances, which may now include less disposable income or greater fears for their financial future. Promotions which appear insensitive, or appeal only to the privileged few, can generate backlash, particularly on social media. Remember that while monetary incentives may get customers in the door, trust will keep them coming back.

The right trust strategy is critical and so is the right partner to develop it. This exercise need not be reserved for big businesses alone. Some strategy firms offer blueprints or toolkits that can be adapted to smaller firms for modest cost. In this highly competitive landscape, investing in the right strategy can literally be the difference between making it, or not.

As lockdowns end, people will want to resume as much of their “pre-pandemic” life as possible. That will include patronizing businesses and brands like yours. But customers need to feel that you are on their side. They need to trust that your environment and products are safe. Employees need to feel good about returning to work, and that their employer cares about their well-being. The right trust strategy will allow you to navigate the new business landscape with confidence – and come out stronger on the other side.