In Trust We Trust

If consumer culture has learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that brands…well, care. They’re there for you—they’re ready to embrace and support you, and they want you to know that you can trust them. The only problem here, is that consumer culture isn’t looking for trust. Right now, it’s in survival mode.

If you haven’t seen the compilation videos of news anchors, brand statements, and commercials that repeat the same message surrounding coronavirus, I’ll spare you the three minutes and tell you this: people caught on really fast that everyone was taking the same angle. Consumers aren’t looking for a new brand to believe in, nor are they relying on brand loyalty—they’re just trying to figure out tomorrow.

Perhaps the biggest disconnect is that brands are saying “we’re here for you” and the consumer has already deduced that message to really mean “we’re here for you to shop.”

Beyond the surface level problem of the brands sounding repetitive, the bigger issue is that all this coddled language and pseudo-sympathetic advertising isn’t tugging heartstrings. What it’s actually doing is changing the value of trust.

If we look back to the Recession of 2008-09 and look at consumer behavior, we’re seeing a lot of similarities play out, this time including Generation Z as adults. One of the most fascinating takeaways of recessionary behavior was the push for premium. As consumers tightened budgets and made frugal purchases, splurges had to become more justified—and retain a sense of value.

Enter premium, defined as the ability to market an item within any category by upgrading the base offering, thus creating a new type of value that combined a price point and a quality check. Premium became a focus for consumer splurges; the only problem was, everyone was using the term. Somehow premium was supposed to be believed when it existed as a dollar menu item and as a fifty dollar entrée at another restaurant. The same conundrum plagued other categories and retailers as well, with premium, as a callout, becoming irrelevant due to mass use and lack of a believable definition.

Now—that detour down memory lane aside—the same thing is starting to happen with trust. Trust is being used as freely and lightly during the pandemic as premium was during the recession. As this continues, we must accept that, much like premium, trust must be given a new set of standards. Trust cannot exist as a shallow gimmick and a point of integrity at the same time. It may have worked in 2009 with premium, at least until mass saturation, but with today’s connected consumer culture, they’ve already grown tired of it a few weeks in.

So, the obvious question is this: What does trust look like after coronavirus? Much like how premium leveraged elements of quality, price, and uniqueness, trust is going to have to become multifaceted and focus on qualities the consumer needs now. Relatability, access, and—more than ever—adaptation, are becoming core consumer values during this situation.

For the concept of brand trust to break the branding cycle, it is going to need to lean-in on these values. Otherwise, trust just becomes more noise to criticize in an already loud shouting match of brand versus consumer.