Global Consumer Distrust And The Transition To Transparency

The truth has always been able to come out, now it’s just so much easier to spread the word. With the advent of the Internet and social media, power and influence have become decentralised. A teenager in Nairobi can, in theory, be just as influential as a CEO in New York. As a result of our inter-connectivity we share more and we know more and yet we trust less. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 reports that globally, trust is in crisis and that overall the situation is as dire as in 2017. Why is that and what are the implications for brands? 

Perception of a world in crisis 

On grassroots-level the perception is that conditions and prospects are not improving and that politicians, companies and global organisations can’t be trusted to bring about lasting, sustainable change. Bill Gates says the world is getting better overall and if you look at the data we’re making progress. However, we can’t shake the feeling that it’s apocalypse now (or very soon): the richest 1% is on track to own two-thirds of global wealth by 2030; environmental degradation and climate change is undeniable and terrorism still rears its ugly head

Uncontrollable technology

Tech firms have a difficult job to do as they are dealing with an ever-evolving marvel or monster (depending on how you look at it). Technological consequences are real, whether they’re intended or unintended and so far there’s been more than enough instances which led to us questioning the trust we place in these behemoths. 

Technology was used intentionally to get Donald Trump elected as president of the United States of America. It has been reported that millions of Facebook users’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, a company which played a role in helping Trump win the presidency by influencing/manipulating voters. In a similar vein, Edelman found that seven in ten people globally are worried that false information or fake news can be used as a weapon. In light of these findings, it’s no wonder that the EU decided it’s necessary to implement aGeneral Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will come into effect in May 2018. Mere years ago none of these concerns would have made it into the mainstream and now they have become a reality that needs to be navigated. 

Without a holistic approach, technology can also easily lead to unintentional dangers. To illustrate this, let’s consider algorithmic bias and the decision-making powers of AI-machines that are making people uncomfortable. If a self-driving car has to choose between hitting a toddler or a grandmother, who determines and programs that final logic? How transparent should companies like Uber and Tesla be regarding their back-end processes? Ethical considerations abound and for the most part we’re simply muddling through. 

What brands are doing and what they should be doing

Some brands have been paying attention to the paradigm shift taking place. Provenance successfully used blockchain to track and trace fish from ocean to table. H&M’s new brand Arket displays an item’s factory and supplier name on the website which is a start towards transparency, but it’s not enough. Even though the website states where the factory is located, the consumer still needs to start his/her own investigation about working conditions, fair pay, child labour etc. Russia’s Dodo Pizza on the other hand goes so far as to livestream its kitchen operations. Countries are realising that they have a role to play too. In 2018 Iceland became the first country in the world to pass a law that forces companies with 25 or more employees to pay women and men the same wage for doing the same job. It’s a move towards equality and transparency that’s been widely praised. 

What’s a brand to do then? Firstly, brands should ensure that they have nothing to hide and when something does go awry, they need to own their mistake, apologise and implement corrective measures. Any other strategy is risky, because every brand is outnumbered by about > 3,5 billion Internet users, all with the potential to create a viral tweet, post or video. Secondly, in an Exponentially Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (EVUCA) world, consumers are looking for trustworthy actors to pave the way and/or sense-makers to guide them. First-mover brands who authentically position themselves as champions of transparency and protectors of societal trust will be able to claim this new type of ‘market share’. 

The transition to transparency could ultimately lead to a more just, efficient and sustainable world. Consumers win all the way as they are able to hold companies accountable and demand them to act responsibly. The process is painful for many brands as they have to learn and play by the new rules of the game. Unfortunately for them they don’t really have a choice, unless they willingly want to choose death by distrust.

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