Building Brand Trust in Uncertainty
Jun 25, 2020
7 MIN READ

Building Brand Trust in Uncertain Times – Global Experts Weigh In

In the new era of corporate responsibility—fueled by the entrance of the millennial generation into the workforce—companies develop reputations as responsible brands based on how they treat their employees and key stakeholders. Diversity and inclusion, employee training and promotion programs, green initiatives, and opportunities for corporate-sponsored philanthropy often top the list of criteria for establishing a brand reputation for trustworthiness and corporate integrity.

As with many of our previously-held beliefs and preferences, the measure of brand responsibility has shifted. Now, key stakeholders and the larger community are looking for brands they can trust with their health, safety, and well-being. Beyond employees, the suppliers, greater communities, and even the competition are looking to brands to do the right thing in ways we may not have considered before. In this “we’re all in this together” environment, companies that act strictly with their own best interests at heart, may not be the ones that emerge as market leaders when the immediate crisis is over.

“In the current crisis, the world is watching when it comes to corporate responses.”

Dr. Ioannis Ioannou, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship,
London Business School

To help brands navigate the road to recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, we spoke to a group of global experts including academics, consultants, authors, and business leaders to discuss the way forward. You can watch what they have to say and get expert advice in our video guide: “Fueling the Next Wave of Innovation: Expert Advice for Companies on Leading Through a Crisis.” 

In this blog we include some key insights from these thought leaders:

  1. Chloe Demrovsky, president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International
  2. Jason Pfeiffer, editor-in-chief, Entrepreneur Magazine and host of Pessimists Archive and Problem Solvers podcasts
  3. Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications, The Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth
  4. Bret Kinsella, CEO, and founder of Voicebot.ai and host of Voicebot Podcast
  5. Dr. Ioannis Ioannou, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School

Despite their varied backgrounds, all our experts agree that responsible action, communication, and empathy are the necessary components for building brand trust right now and in the future—whatever that may bring.

What is brand responsibility?

It’s easy to treat employees and suppliers well when your company is well-funded, profitable, and all is going according to plan. It’s a different matter for brands to act responsibly then they’re at risk of survival. According to our experts, if a company is doing a poor job of taking care of its internal audience during a crisis, they will lose a lot of consumers, particularly millennials who are much more interested in corporate responsibility than any other audience.

“I think what is required is for organizations to understand how important it is to focus on the people and to make them understand that we’re going to get through this. And because the organization is strong and the fundamentals of the organization are strong, we’re going to be even stronger as a result of going through this together. Because we’ve learned something about ourselves and we shared an experience together that is unbelievable.”

Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications, The Tuck School of
Business, Dartmouth

Brand responsibility is not just what you say and to whom you say it. Especially during times of crisis, giving partial or incorrect information is more harmful than waiting until you can respond with accurate, complete messaging. However, according to our experts, remaining completely quiet for fear of saying the wrong thing can be just as damaging. Their advice: Get out ahead of your message as quickly as you can and deliver as much detail as is appropriate for each stakeholder community, without sacrificing accuracy.

“Anything that you say you’re going to do, be consistent. Say things that you can live with in the long term. Don’t make stuff up. Don’t be wishy washy. Don’t avoid questions. If you don’t know the answer, say, I don’t know and we’ll get back to you. It’s okay to say we’re looking into it and we’ll deal with that later. When you do come out and say something, try to make sure it’s the right thing,” 

Chloe Demrovsky, president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International

The goal of anything you say or do now is to create a foundation of trust and transparency that will carry your brand into the future. But, words won’t be enough. You’ll need teams of loyal employees and suppliers to back up your plans and execute them for you. 

Fostering loyalty and optimism

The experts we spoke to are cautiously optimistic about the future. In spite of the uncertainties, they encourage brands to think about goals two or three years from now and to start putting operations and teams in place now that will help the company reach those goals. A key to establishing winning teams is building trust now while people are feeling anxious and looking for leadership. 

“In this era of remote work and unpredictability, any leader needs to really step up and make sure that their team understands and feels a part of everything that’s happening. You need to bring people together. So how do you do that? Transparency. You have to be extremely open, accessible and transparent with your team so they don’t feel like things are just being randomly handed down to them, but that they are actually a part of it.”

Jason Feifer, editor-in-chief, Entrepreneur Magazine

See the video in its entirety here

When the market slowed down and travel was cut off as a result of shutdowns and border closures related to COVID-19, many brands became acutely aware of their dependence on reliable and healthy supply chains. Faced with the need to work with new materials and fewer resources and the urgency to establish new sources for supplies, organizations relied on their relationships to help them get by. Those who had not taken the time to establish relationships in the past were suddenly faced with the new reality: Suppliers are part of the team that needs protecting.

“The better relationship you have with your suppliers, the more likely it is to have them as part of your innovation process, which will allow you to become more agile, change things, and meet the changing demands and expectations. They’re going to strengthen the trust and the integrity that your brand and your company enjoys.”

Dr. Ioannis Ioannou, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School

The component of supply chain responsibility is heightened in B2B-focused companies where brands are not only shielding their employees and their customers, they’re also trying to shield their supply chain. Leading brands are taking responsibility by helping their partners through this difficult time to ensure that these interdependencies remain intact for the good of both entities.

Transparency and honesty build trust 

According to global experts, it’s better not to try and sugarcoat the realities of the impact of the crisis on businesses or the tough decisions that have to be made in response. Remaining transparent and taking responsibility for the business decisions that impact people’s lives builds trust that will live long past the sting of current events.

“A lot of that has to do with not pulling any wool over people’s eyes when things are not right and instead, talking to them about the reality of the organization. And if you do that, people will understand even if it’s not the right thing for them individually, they understand how you made the decision. It’s when you hide things or you try to call it “project forward” when it’s really “project two steps back”, that you’re going to lose your employees, your customers, your shareholders, everybody.”

Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications, The Tuck School of
Business, Dartmouth

See the video in its entirety here 

Timeliness, transparency, and honesty are all critical elements of sending out messaging to employees, customers, and other key stakeholders. But experts remind us to keep the lines of communication open and find ways to really listen. Just because we are in a crisis that is unprecedented for our time, the basic fundamentals of running a team have not changed.

“The idea is to create lots of ways in which people can feel like they are able to reach out, that they’re heard, and that they’re a part of the decision-making process. It’s all about transparency. It’s about understanding. It’s about people feeling bought into their roles and responsibilities, feeling like they have power in the role that they’re in. These are the things that we need to do even more because people want great leadership right now.”

Jason Feifer, editor-in-chief, Entrepreneur Magazine

When have you said too much? According to our experts, over communicating is not a mistake. In fact, now may be the best time to make your teams, customers, and suppliers feel like they are always hearing from you. Let them know you are still here and show them all the steps you are taking to protect everyone involved with your organization.

“Above all, leaders need to be thinking about communicating more. You’re going to have to communicate what your plan is for keeping your employees safe and all of those measures like environmental cleaning procedures, payment systems, and how you deal with common spaces. These are the kinds of things that are usually not communicated to customers. There are things that we kind of keep hidden from sight, but now you want to really extra communicate them. You want to show what you’re doing so that people feel taken care of and confident that your business is making the safest choices and the right choices.”

Chloe Demrovsky, president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International

Giving your customers a view into the inner workings of your company establishes a level of transparency that was not needed before, but is right now. For some businesses, such as restaurants, this may include things like having a camera in the kitchen. For others, it may simply require responding to the new needs of customers in a timely fashion. 

Responsiveness to consumer needs

Who will your customers trust moving forward? First, brands must become aware of how their customers needs, behaviors, priorities, and expectations have changed. As we all rethink what’s important in everyday life, we are breaking patterns and establishing new norms. Companies that can respond to those changes with products and services that help solve problems for people will be seen as the most trustworthy and valuable.

“There’s a heightened expectation around consumers for responsiveness and convenience. When we think about responsiveness, it’s really just value. I see consumers having trouble getting information that’s honest and consistent and quick. That’s going to be even more important for consumer loyalty, which everyone’s shooting for. One of the things we found with chronic viruses, it increases the level of uncertainty in people’s lives and that’s going to continue for some time. Any brand that can implement something that gives consumers just a little bit more control, makes it a little easier for them to get through the day, is really going to benefit them.”

Bret Kinsella, CEO, and founder of Voicebot.ai and host of Voicebot Podcast

See the video in its entirety here

The stock market, the dip in consumer spending, and the loss of revenue have impacted brands and forced them to reconsider their tangible assets—cash, property, and product—with greater scrutiny. What they may be missing is the value of intangible assets—employees, suppliers, and other key stakeholders—and the implications of those relationships on the company’s business success. The defining characteristic of this pandemic on consumer behavior has been its effect on not just preferences, but entire value systems. Establishing and nurturing better stakeholder relationships allows companies to understand those shifts and to be more resilient during and after the crisis.

“If you have a better relationship with your customers, you will be much better positioned to make adjustments compared to a company that did not make investments towards its customers. You’re much more likely to receive timely, honest feedback on your products and services. If you receive that sort of feedback, you’re bound to have higher quality decision-making and at the same time you’re going to be more agile in terms of adjusting your portfolio of products and services to meet changing demands and expectations on the customer side.”

Dr. Ioannis Ioannou, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School

As the economy slowly opens up, brands and consumers are wary about how they want to participate in the new social order. Most seem to be proceeding with caution and closely watching to understand the effects of the pandemic and sheltering-in-place on businesses, individuals, and our collective health and safety.

While it’s easy to become paralyzed by the most dire predictions, experts agree that brands should be undergoing a mindset shift and looking for opportunities. In terms of corporate responsibility and trust, now is the time for brands to show what they are made of and to show how resilient and innovative they are. More importantly, this is an opportunity to prove that corporate responsibility isn’t just something you talk about in marketing campaigns. It’s something you live out in day-to-day practice. If approached with the right attitude, this crisis might be an opportunity to learn and make the kinds of improvements in the lives of others that will take us into the future. 

To help brands navigate this crisis better, we’ve assembled a collection of videos, blogs, and other resources from global experts. Learn more about what brands should focus on in our guide:  “Fueling the Next Wave of Innovation: Expert advice for companies on leading through a crisis.” 

This blog is part of a series. Read more expert advice here:

Karen Scates is a storyteller with a passion for helping others through content. Argentine tango, good books and great wine round out Karen’s interests.

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