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Brands and organisations are built (and destroyed) on trust

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In a nutshell

  1. Cultural forces impacting trust are coming from a range of perspectives.
  2. Transparency, authenticity, privacy, reputation, and truth are topics driving conversation.
  3. While trust is high in New Zealand, organisations and brands face more intense scrutiny than ever before.

For organisations to thrive today, trust is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.

While scrolling down the sidebar of shame in a famously untrustworthy UK news source, I read that Australian supermodel, Elle Macpherson, was allegedly in a relationship with “disgraced anti-vaxxer” Andrew Wakefield. If the name isn’t familiar, his story will be - Wakefield was struck off the medical register due to his involvement in the Lancet MMR fraud that falsely claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. 

When I was growing up in New Zealand, Elle Macpherson was influential. My first bra was from her lingerie brand, Elle Macpherson Intimates, which was part of the Bendon family. She had a wholesome sort of trustworthiness about her: big smile, healthy glow, a provider of quality undergarments and purveyor of “wellness”.

Learning that one of the most privileged women in Australasia was dating this former physician sparked a feeling of resignation, familiar in these days of fake news, billionaire CEOs, flat-earthers, and data breaches. Macpherson became just another person to strike off my list of “people, organisations or institutions whom I can trust”. So relegated, she joined the ranks of politicians who say one thing but do another, brands that subscribe me to marketing emails without asking my permission, and multi-national mega-corporates like Apple or Amazon who I understand to be basically evil but have no practical way of disentangling from (outside of moving to Android, but I am, emphatically, not an Android person.) 

All this to say: brands and organisations are built, and destroyed, on trust.

Right now, the global narrative around trust is everywhere. 

Cultural forces impacting trust are coming from societal, political, technological, and economic perspectives. Whether your reputation is impacted by dating the father of the anti-vaccine movement (or, indeed, by being the father of the anti-vaccine movement), or your organisation failed to properly protect customer data, transparency, authenticity, privacy, reputation, and truth are the hot topics driving conversation and impacting people’s choices. For organisations, as well as former supermodels, to thrive in today’s climate, trust is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-have. 

We’ve spoken before about how New Zealand can feel like the Devonport or Eastbourne of the world – a place that through isolation, adapts to and reflects global trends differently. Because of our Covid-19 experience, there are now, fittingly, two truths about trust at play:

  1. Globally, trust is moving in the wrong direction
  2. Locally, trust is operating at a completely different level 

As an insight agency, at TRA, we track cultural trends that shape the world, and it’s clear that globally, long-standing institutional trust is eroding as allegations of corruption, scandals and a lack of transparency are muddying the waters. 

This is borne out in data. The Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey of over 33,000 people, saw a five-point drop in trust between May 2020 and January 2021. Trust in information sources is at record lows, with trust in search engines, traditional, owned, and social media all losing points between 2019 and 2021.

Chart 1chart 2

Meanwhile, in Aotearoa, even before Covid-19, trust had slowly been on the rise in both the public and private sector. But now, we are operating at a completely different level, at odds with the global position. Trust has soared since March 2020 in New Zealand. Trust has become our currency.

Chart 3

This could be attributed to the cultural acumen of our leaders and leading brands, to adapt their narrative and actions to stay on code with culture. To say and, critically, do the right thing. You see this acumen in communications across public and private sector organisations - Les Mills automatically putting gym memberships on pause during lockdowns, the rise in B Corp certified businesses, and of course, in the “team of 5 million.” 

The high trust that New Zealand organisations are enjoying does not make them immune to losing it. With trust high on peoples’ cultural radar, organisations and brands face more intense scrutiny than ever before. 

Before Covid-19, a hypocritical influencer or politician, data breach, or a comms misstep could damage trust. With Covid-19 came stress and hardship, and these issues intensified: brands lost trust for being seen as profiteering off the wage subsidy, not responding quickly enough, or putting money before the safety of their customers and staff. 

Under normal circumstances, the story of Elle MacPherson being associated with the anti-vaccine movement would be a gossip-oddity, like learning Beck was a scientologist, but the story’s release during the pandemic sparked more intense scrutiny, with coverage in major newspapers around the world.

A framework for building trust

As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”.  And while having a legacy or history can help earn trust, in a contemporary context, trust must be actively maintained. It’s not about what you did, it’s about what you’re doing.

How can an organisation achieve this?

Understand the cultural forces at play. For you to know how people assess trust, you need to know more about the culture that they’re living within. Cultural analysis can serve as guardrails, to keep your messaging, tone, and actions appropriate and relevant, and be a crystal ball – helping you anticipate, navigate and shape change and messaging in step with peoples’ lives.

Bring the vision. The brands and organisations that are truly successful in building trust are those that also show the vision for the future. Be clear about the plan, and how you plan on achieving it. Bring people with you. 

TRUST Framework

Share knowledge. What do people need to know to help you achieve the vision? And think about how you communicate it – tone is critical. Consider what tone is most appropriate for your audience and how your messaging fits within the cultural context. For example, the tone of the Government’s Covid-19 communications was adult-to-adult, with a dash of levity to appeal to New Zealanders’ sense of humour.

Do it. And finally, it’s about what you do – the experience that people have with your organisation. Are you actively working towards the vision? Have you done what you said you would?  

In a world where who and what you can trust has become a subject of debate, the organisations that understand the complexity and context of peoples’ lives and who live their vision that will earn trust. And the organisations we trust will be the ones we ask to help meet our needs, or guide our choices. 


Headshot of Hannah Cooked, Head of Marketing at TRA in black and white
Hannah Cooke
Head of Marketing

New problems need new solutions.

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