Note: the following article recently appeared in Catalyst, the official publication of IABC. 

By: Elizabeth Williams, ABC, FRSA, and Mike Atkins, CPC

Even before the pandemic challenged our notions of, well, everything, consumer trust was on the decline. According to one study, only 27% of Canadians trusted large corporations in 2020[i], and more than half[ii] believed business leaders purposely misled the public. That said, 86%[iii] also expected these leaders to be speaking out on important social issues.

Yet in its annual ranking of the most trusted brands in Canada, the Gustavson School of Business [iv] identified some brands that had seen big gains in 2020. We wanted to understand why five brands — Astro Yogurt, President’s Choice, Interac, Quaker Oats and Lego — saw big year-over-year gains in trust, so we analyzed their public-facing communications on social media, press releases and websites from March to December 2020.

Early, Often, Authentically

Spoiler alert: The brands that built trust communicated early, often and authentically in the early weeks of the pandemic.

For example, President’s Choice, the upmarket store brand for Canada’s biggest grocery chain, was an early mover when supply chains were uncertain and conflicts over public health mandates were being waged in supermarkets. The company’s CEO, usually visible for seasonal product launches, was front and center in a series of videos posted to Facebook and Instagram, reassuring consumers that its inventory was secure and reminding them to be kind to essential retail workers. During Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020, the company also made a large donation to support Black businesses. The brand climbed 10 spots in the ranking for 2020, whereas its competitors moved little.

Astro Yogurt was also quick to address concerns about food supply, sharing Facebook messages about its support for Canadian dairy farmers and its production workers who were continuing to move products through the supply chain. The brand also switched up its consumer messaging from sales promotions to healthy eating habits during the first lockdowns, inviting followers to participate in online contests. The brand climbed an impressive 60 places to rank 10th overall. Again, it was the only brand in its category to see a significant year over year rise.

Lego may seem an obvious brand builder among families struggling to entertain bored kids during the first lockdowns, but we don’t see the same trust growth among other toy brands, suggesting Lego went a bit further to move from sixth to third place. Indeed, we saw the company’s social media and web messages initially reassure consumers that their products would be easily available. Plus, the brand shared regular building ideas families could try at home. It also announced a new Lego brick made out of recycled plastic in June 2020.

Quaker Oats stood out among other cereal brands, not just because of its wholesome comfort but through its messaging about support for global food supply chains and donations to local food programs. Additionally, in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, the brand announced it would discontinue its controversial Aunt Jemima brand, which we believe contributed to its 16-point jump in the rankings.

Interac is a Canadian technology company that enables consumers to use their credit and debit cards at multiple merchants through multiple banks. Other than an annual holiday campaign touting the safety of retail debit transactions, it’s a relatively obscure brand for consumers. In 2020, however, Interac was highly visible on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn with two sets of messages: One reassuring consumers, many of them new to ecommerce, about the safety of online transactions and offering tips for cybersecurity; the other celebrating its newly remote workforce and its successful transition to new ways of working during a period of rapid growth, helping it claim fourth place in the ranking, a 12-spot gain.

Other brands secured their supply chains, supported their employees and gave generously to communities and causes in 2020; why did these five brands build trust and others in their categories didn’t?

Understanding Trust

Let’s step back and look at the elements of trust. According to research[v], individuals decide whether or not to trust others based on three things:

  1. Ability: Can the other party deliver on its promises?
  2. Benevolence: Does the other party have our best interests in mind?
  3. Integrity: Will the other party follow through on its promises?

These principles apply to brands as well, but consumers also weigh their alignment with the brand’s values, their functional trust in the brand and their existing relationship, if any. These elements define brand trust. And in our assessment of the messages, we saw that the five brands here:

  • Clearly communicated ability, benevolence and integrity
  • Acted quickly and decisively
  • Confronted conflict
  • Engaged stakeholders
  • Behaved authentically

In the case of President’s Choice, the brand’s messages clearly articulated an ability to keep their stores stocked, their benevolence toward their customers, communities and employees, and their track record of delivering on promises. Astro’s focus on benevolence toward essential agricultural workers and consumers, and demonstrated ability to keep dairy products moving, added to the integrity demonstrated with its employee recognition.

Interac also recognized its employees and doubled down on ability by providing a steady stream of messages about fraud prevention and the safety of cashless transactions.

Not many brands would choose a time of racial tension to shine a light on their own problematic brand. Yet in announcing the retirement of its Aunt Jemima brand in 2020, Quaker Oats deftly demonstrated its benevolence toward racialized communities and backed it up with substantial financial support to Black Lives Matter. When we analyzed the social media responses to the announcement, we had expected at least some commentary on the timing but found almost all comments to be positive and supportive.

Similarly, Lego’s announcement that it had developed a brick made from recycled plastic, in addition to its donations to children’s charities, demonstrated benevolence. Along with signalling ability through its stream of building ideas, and integrity through its steady inventory, the brand built strong trust among Canadians.

Timing is another key here. We noted that all of these brands moved very quickly when the pandemic was declared in March 2020. They were actively communicating with their customers, employees and communities within days and weeks, with messages acknowledging the uncertainty of the times and the quickly shifting information and public policies.

Not Everyone’s a Winner

What about the brands that lost trust? We looked at three brands whose rankings fell substantially in 2020 and concluded they had two things in common. First, they were almost entirely silent during and about the pandemic in 2020. Two of the brands posted little or no content, while a third continued to share marketing content, apparently oblivious to the pandemic. In one case, a supermarket chain remained silent while social and traditional media castigated them for their treatment of employees and tone-deaf responses to social issues. Most of these brands did take actions that demonstrated ability, benevolence and integrity, but they didn’t go the final step and communicate it to their stakeholders.

While much has changed in two years, we offer these takeaways to help build brand trust in the future.

  1. Engage early in a crisis.
  2. Confront conflict.
  3. Engage stakeholders.
  4. Behave authentically.
  5. Act quickly and decisively.
  6. Own your narrative, or someone else will.
  7. Shine a light on employees.
  8. Prioritize content that supports ability, benevolence and integrity.
  9. Build trust with action.
  10. Be seen to be building trust with action.

Studies Cited:
[i] Proof Strategies Inc., (2021). 2021 results report Proof CanTrust Index.
[ii, iii] Edelman Data & Intelligence (2021). 2021 Edelman trust barometer.
[iv] Gustavson brand trust index. University of Victoria.
[v] Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734.

Photo: Mizuno K at