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Podcast: Victoria Sakal — How Brands Can Build Trust

Victoria Sakal, Morning Consult’s Managing Director of Brand Intelligence

Victoria Sakal, Morning Consult’s Managing Director of Brand Intelligence

It seems obvious: We are not exactly living in the golden age of trust. Everywhere one turns, trust seems to be crumbling – institutions, politicians, media, even science.

The causes, of course, are everywhere, starting – but not ending – with social media and that old line: a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

So given the current state of trust, what are brands supposed to do? What are the key trends around the building — and breaking — of consumer trust? What challenges do brands face? What do the good ones do well? How easy is it to lose? And as consumers increasing  “expect” brands to take positions on our most divisive social issues, how exactly should brands manage those tensions?

Victoria Sakal is one to ask. Victoria is Morning Consult’s Managing Director of Brand Intelligence. She leads the company’s brand intelligence research, focusing on the intersection of data with marketing strategy, brand reputation, and consumer trends. She is also author of the intelligence company’s Most Trusted Brands 2021 report, in addition to recent reports on the post-vaccine consumer, examining evolved attitudes towards brands, categories, channels, consumption, Consumer-Brand Relationships, and more .

As you’ll hear, Victoria skillfully explains not only the key trends brands face, but importantly the key tactics that winning brands employ.

Transcript: Victoria Sakal

Chris Riback: Victoria, thanks for joining me. Appreciate your time.

Victoria Sakal: Thanks Chris. I’m thrilled to be here.

Chris Riback: So I also am excited to have this conversation, because despite any challenges that might exist for brands, and we’ll talk about them, the good news, and I think the headline good news is, trust is not completely dead in our society. Is it? There are still green shoots of trust out there.

Victoria Sakal: No, and you’re right in that there’s a broad range of how we’re feeling about different institutions, but that is absolutely not the way we would describe it, especially when you get into the nuances around brands and categories across different consumer groups. Of course, one of my favorite topics, but I’m biased.

Chris Riback: You’re just a little bit biased, but yes. And there is a lot of nuance, and that’s important. But I think let’s start at the top and most broadly, because I think doing some definition level setting will be helpful. What is customer trust? How did you define it? And do you find that all brands defined it the same way?

Morning Consult Most Trusted Brands 2021Victoria Sakal: It’s a really interesting question because how we philosophically talk about trust, and what we know to go into trust is, of course, not what you are going to ask consumers about, you get at it through different angles and different types of questions that break trust as a concept down into pieces that they’re more likely to understand and be able to evaluate brands against. So fundamentally trust has a couple of core different components. There are the competence side of things. Is it a ability to deliver in a way that you would expect it to, there’s a benevolent side. So do I think that it’s acting in my best interest, do I feel supported and encouraged, or taken care of by the brand?

And then connecting those two pieces there is an integrity. So I alluded to delivering on promises, but if we know the brand can do the thing, and we know the brand can act in our best interest, or is expressing that it’s trying to do so, how is that promise actually being delivered? So we look at these different components and they tend, in a brand setting, to boil down to a functional and experiential side and then an emotional and social side that together all blend into this feeling of trust in a brand.

Chris Riback: And it’s fair to say that it is possible to get one of those components right, and others of them wrong. And it’s getting the complete blend, I guess, “right as defined by the consumer,” that elevates a brand to the top and differentiates winners from losers and those in between.

Victoria Sakal: Yes. You raise a really interesting point, because that dynamic, the different combinations is where the challenge and also the opportunity for brands is. Different consumers have different weightings, if you will, of those different components, what matters more to them. Sometimes it’s just delivering on the promise and carrying through, then you have younger generations in particular, there’s that benevolence factor is the brand doing well and showing up in society? And then beyond the consumer angle, there’s also the category dynamics. So you think about your car versus your potato chip brand. There are certain people’s stakes that will matter more versus others. And there’s also development trajectories that different categories are at where you think of healthcare and you think of something like e-commerce, or where Amazon is showing up. There are different stages of how they’re able to deliver on these different pieces. All of that comes into play, and it makes what the implications are for your given brand really, really nuanced.

Chris Riback: Yes. The category and differences is one of the areas I really want to be able to ask you about, and to what extent can a skilled player overcome a negative category, overcome its birthright versus can, in some of the other categories that are well received generally at this time, so to give away some of the punchline, for example, healthcare. Can you sit in a positively aligned sector, but either deliver bad experience, deliver bad product, not act benevolently, whatever it is the audience member wants, the consumer wants, and not necessarily benefit from the sector that you are in?

But before we talk, maybe about how brands keep trust, give me a sense, not only of how easy it might be for a brand to lose customer trust, but of the stakes. How important is trust? When you asked if a brand or company you trust did something to break your trust, how would your loyalty to their products or services be affected, if at all? What was the response?

Victoria Sakal: It tends to have severe implications, and I will say severe with an asterisk and that, again, there’s nuance there with the way that the brand might have broken the trust. Some of these things will be much more consequential than others, and this is where this topic became really interesting in the last 18, 19 months here, were the parameters of safety, of showing up into society and thinking about the different stakeholder groups and how you’re engaging with them, what that means for how a brand is building, or potentially breaking trust, not showing up in the right way, can lead to breaks and loyalties.

So we do see that there is a cohort of consumers that are going to stick with a brand for the most part, no matter what. And that could be because of convenience, or because of loyalty, it could be any number of factors, but we do see, especially again, with those younger generations, there’s an inclination to vote with your wallet. So if the brands are not engaging and building the trust, or protecting the trust in the way that those consumers are hoping for, they’re very fluid in terms of finding something else.

Chris Riback: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, so maybe I just jump to it right now, the differences within the segmentation of consumers by age, or by generation, how hard is that for brands? How dire, or how strict are the choices that they have to make in terms of, let’s say for a more senior consumer, the value or the capability of the product may matter more than for a younger consumer, what that brand stands for. How should a brand go about thinking about that tension and that balance?

Victoria Sakal: There are a couple of different axes to look at here. The first is, we’ve looked through the lens of generations, but actually there’s another level of granularity below generations, which would be more of the pyschographic attitudes of different consumers. So you may find, for example, boomers who act like certain Gen Zers or vice versa, whereas the attitudes and the sentiments and the priorities that will dictate how those consumers behave, that tend to generalize around a generation, but that leads to the second point around the second axis here that can tend to be around which issues matter more or less to different consumers. So when you think about things like politics or some of these social justice issues, you saw younger generations getting more activated in recent months than maybe some of the older, more conservative generations. So thinking about these issues that will resonate with different audiences is important for brands to bear in mind.

The other piece is what aligns with a brand. So when I say activating around certain issues, sometimes it doesn’t make sense for brands to have their voice in the conversation. And sometimes it’s the table stakes for every brand everywhere to have a voice, and it becomes a question of which consumer group might I be alienating more with this voice, but understanding the issues that matter to different consumer groups and then looking actually beyond demographics and into more of those psychographics is how we’ve had a lot of success approaching it with our clients when we start to look at the category dynamics, these issues, and then the specific ways they can resonate with different audiences, even if you’re potentially spanning a number of different generations to resonate.

Chris Riback: Did I read this correctly though? So we’ve all read the headlines and some of these issues that you might be talking about, whether it’s taking a stand on voting legislation in Georgia, or abortion legislation in Texas, or continuing voting disputes in Arizona, and I know that many of these are topics or issues that have come up since you actually ran the data. So I’m not specifically naming those in terms of what you found, but the various political issues, social issues that we all know about, George Floyd, obviously was probably very prominent within the at the time that you ran your data.

One of the findings was that, “potentially polarizing instances of corporate activism,” I’m quoting you here, “around important issues have rarely damaged relationships to the point of abandonment.” So I’m trying to get to understand what you were just saying a moment ago about the different age groups, or psychographic groups. And in fact, you wrote, “A brand’s stance on social or political issues has led just one in 10 to stop buying from, or using the brand, and fewer than one in 10 say the company staying silent on a social or political issue that was important to them has been a deal breaker.” That surprised me. I would have thought that it would, did it surprise you?

Victoria Sakal: It did. And this is again where that nuance around who those people are, that one in 10 are, start to explain where your hypothesis might lie.

Chris Riback: And who your customers are, I would assume, knowing who your customers are.

Victoria Sakal: Exactly. So there will be certain cases where, and we’re even seeing this now that brands are slow to have commentary around what’s going on in Texas and some of that legislation, because they’re getting a sense of where the scope of the issue lies and where their audience lies on the issue. Certain things that feel fundamentally just wrong and inhumane, like the George Floyd incident, led to a much quicker activation by different brands. But yes, the contradiction almost feel to those data points really lies in, at the end of the day, going back to what I mentioned earlier, there are extremes as far as what will lead consumers to totally abandon any sense of loyalty or connection.

There’s also going to be pull factors in the sense of if the brand is on the shelf, and especially we look to longer time horizons, three months, let alone three years from now, will they remember the stance that the brand took around a certain issue? Maybe not, but if it’s built into the brand’s DNA and they realize, or they’re recalling this either alignment with sustainability, or that they’re always at the front of important issues, advocating for what’s right, that will start to break through, but that goes to that point of authenticity and aligning with what you actually have always stood for as a brand in line with what your consumers may want or expect of you.

Chris Riback: It’s making me think, and I hate to, I don’t mean to throw you this type of soft ball. So, maybe home in on it a little bit for me, but on one level reading a report like this is really, really useful if I’m a brand, I would think, it gives me great top line insights, but then as I’m listening to you, is it fair to say that there’s another layer that every brand needs to take, asking the same questions, or getting at these same concepts, but really specifically within their audience segmentation. There are broad insights or conclusions that one can draw, but they may or may not be directly applicable depending on who wants audiences. Is that a proper interpretation of what you’re saying?

Victoria Sakal: Spot on, it would have been my dream to be able to test every combination of consumers and categories and brands and issues, and functional versus emotional, all of that, but you’re exactly right. And that’s where we’ve seen, even as we followed-up with elements of the journey and the customer experience and how that builds trust or breaks trust, there’s so many different components that it’s critical to route your actions in what you stand for, who your audience is, who your aspirational audience is, where your priorities lie, maybe it’s in, again, the journey versus messaging, but all of that makes the research, you have to follow-up on this type of research with more nuance to be able to bring it home in a way that’s relevant.

Chris Riback: Victoria, your research dealt, of course, not only with the US, but it also dealt globally. What is the state of consumer trust and how does it compare in the US versus global regions?

Victoria Sakal: That’s the one dimension I didn’t even mention yet, which you’re right and the nuance there. There’s multiple levels upon levels here. So what we see is first, it’s important to look at this through the lens of different markets, or regions tendencies as far as attitudes. So certain regions you’ll find are more trusting of entities, or institutions, let alone brands in general, whereas others are not. So there’s interpreting any data that you see through that lens. What we also see is dynamics around the different types of organizations that different brands will trust. And this, of course, is coming out of the pandemic in many cases, it’s coming out of the election, at least, specifically around the time that our data came out of field. And all of that will influence how consumers are feeling about, for example, brands made in America, or brands made in China, or international brands in general. So there’s the point in time view as well as what your local market dynamics tend to be in interpreting how you fall on the spectrum of different consumers globally.

Chris Riback: Fair to say though, that Chinese companies face the biggest challenges globally.

Victoria Sakal: Yes, absolutely. There’s quite a range as far as the most trusting of those types of companies versus the least trusting there.

Chris Riback: So you also identified the most trusted brands, and everyone loves a list. Who among us, Victoria, does not like a good list? So the top 10 were Google, PayPal, Microsoft, YouTube, Amazon, Sony, Adidas, Netflix, Visa and Samsung. What are the lessons other brands can take from these top performers? What did they do right? How did they secure trust in the first place? What are they doing right to maintain it?

Victoria Sakal: An important, I guess, contextual piece to bear in mind, as we think about those brands, is a point in time we were at early 2021 when we were assessing how these brands were performing, when it becomes really intuitive to think about where consumers were mentally, emotionally, their needs and how they might have evolved in the past year. When you hear brands like the ones you’ve listed, there’s a couple of factors that explain why they rank as they do, and first is the size and the credibility that brings to their offer. So again, we think about competence, the ability to actually do the thing that they’re setting themselves up to promise for consumers and then integrity, following through on that promise even when things get a little messy and supply chains get a little slow and new safety measures get introduced.

The other piece is around the actual need itself. So we have the convenience factor with Amazon. We have some of the digital elements with other brands, and especially the speed with which they were able to pivot to be available direct to consumer or online, but then we go back to some of those factors that were top drivers of trust. And we know that these brands tend to focus on as much of about the experience and the seamlessness and the convenience and whatever that means for their category as they do with delivering on the promise. But then starting to show up in different ways and consumers’ lives that it’s not just the transaction, but it starts to be more relational and emotional.

Chris Riback: So is there anything that maybe you have found in some of your subsequent research, because I know you’ve done a couple of other reports. Are there any brand strengthening capabilities that might have evolved or developed during that that first COVID hit, but have translated into enduring qualities for brands?

Victoria Sakal: The element of delivering on some of these functional value based drivers is still there. So we think about the availability being increasingly important, but then at the same time, the social side that we talked about in the report, and we saw it starting to surface as a differentiator for brands who, of course, check the box on doing what they said they were going to, and being present where they said they were going to be, but really starting to deliver on different stakeholders needs, taking care of employees and treating customers well, that has endured over time. And we’re seeing that not just among younger generations, but increasingly creeping up towards the elder ones as well.

Chris Riback: Yes, the taking care of employees well really stood out to me, and it aligned, in my mind, with some of what we’re seeing politically, some of what we’re seeing socially around fair wages and around health care for employees. Is that what consumers mean by treating employees well?

Victoria Sakal: Yes, we’re seeing this convergence of all these different spheres of people’s lives, especially with the pandemic that is really underscoring what you’ve mentioned, and then you think about how consumers are as humans and as employees, the lines are starting to blur. So we have mental health, we have how physical health and there’s the safety and COVID component, there’s the reproduction rights component. There’s also the element of society and the world that we’re living in. And how are brand’s leaning into their responsibility, if they’re going to profit off of society, how are they leaning into giving back and contributing where they can, or using their voice, or their stance, or their influence either to push decision-makers or issues in the direction that feels right and intuitive. So the employee component is as much about taking care of, from a financial perspective, as it is with protecting and understanding the human behind who’s showing up at work every day. And we see that employer brand component coming through if we talk about trust just as much.

Chris Riback: Yes. What a great line and great insight, because I think that is what’s changing, is they’re not just employees, they’re human beings. What about other areas, corporate social responsibility, data breaches. How important on the positive side is it to take a proactive role on CSR, and how negatively impactful can a data breach be?

Victoria Sakal: So the CSR component is, as I sort of alluded to before, it gets interesting because we have brands generally delivering well and consumers generally recognizing that it’s important to them to be executing on that functional component. And when we say functional that means things like is a good value, cost, delivers on my needs. All of those components. There’s an experiential element that, again, consumers recognize and brands are generally delivering on as subsequent research has continued to explore in great depth, but this murky middle social drivers and these ESG factors, again, that stakeholders that could be contributing to communities in different ways. It could be stances around inclusion and diversity. That is less a differentiating factor at this moment, which tells you that it becomes a differentiating factor in the future. That right now it’s back of mind, it’s starting to surface. It is a core component of trust. We go back to benevolence, we go back to it being part of the relationship that you form with a brand who is showing up in your society and in your life.

So more and more as we see brands starting to lean into this side of their role in society, more than just delivering the shoes, but also thinking sustainably about the packaging that delivers the shoes, et cetera. We see those issues surfacing more and more. As far as breaking trust, we see that the privacy component being a really nuanced one and that consumers, and how comfortable they are with sharing information in the first place is a whole other conversation. You’ll see real nuances there, again, not only demographically, but also psychographically. And then we get to this element of where it’s affecting me. And if my information got shared, I’m probably more likely to care more and change my behavior if it’s general data breach, and we’ve seen this with brands who either the ones in our own lives, or the ones in the headlines who experienced data breach, the time horizon for memory there can be a bit shorter. So there’s going to be a short-term reaction.

But back to that point you raised where the top of our conversation at the end of the day, if it’s more convenient to stay with your bank versus take advantage of their whatever protection that they’re going to offer you on the heels of a breach, there is a stickiness factor, there is a relationship factor, and then there is the effort factor that will come into play as well, not to say that any brand should go out there liberally searching for these types of issues, but there are the parameters around how consumers engage with brands and how they’re thinking about the calculus around their changes and behaviors to bear in mind when anything happens like this.

Chris Riback: And how difficult switching costs are, and to switch from a bank, the example you just raised is obviously very hard. As you were just mentioning a moment ago, CSR, corporate social responsibility, also environmental issues, you start to get into a little bit of the generational differences, maybe the psychographic differences, which makes me think as well about influencers, and makes me think about social media. In your September report, State of the Changing Post-Vaccine Consumer, as you know, Victoria, we see so much discussion about influencers and celebrity recommendations. I was surprised in that report to see customers don’t say either one influences their intent to purchase very much. So I’m wondering first, do you believe that data? And two, how does that break down by segment and by audience age, or generation, as opposed to just looking at the top line result?

Victoria Sakal: This analysis is one of my favorite, because even when we started doing this and exploring influences on purchase, or likelihood to recommend way back at the beginning of the pandemic, it feels very unintuitive. There’s so much info information and conversation around influencers and celebrity sponsorships. And at the end of the day, there’s a couple of things that explain this somewhat strange feeling tension in what the data actually shows. First, being that word of mouth and that close knit peer, or family, or proximate influence is always going to be key. And we’ve seen that, frankly for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, but we’ve seen that certainly in recent times as well. The other piece to bear in mind is that there’s a lot of complexity around the degree of closeness around your influencers or your celebrities. So it can feel sometimes superficial and that can be okay in certain categories, you want to feel aspirational towards certain things. If you’re thinking about a makeup or something that is going to relate to your skincare or whatever, you might trust someone who’s lifestyle you align with, or who you know more personally.

So there’s that lens to look at this data through. And then the last piece is always a fun one, what consumers think influences them versus what actually does. And so we’ve done quite a bit of work around that space as well that starts to get into system one, system two dynamics, but important to bear in mind that some of these things would not have continued over the last few months, let alone the last few years or decades, if they didn’t have some sort of impact, but it does beg the question of, do the claimed experiences, are they being created in a way that are positive and at least engaging for consumers such that influencers, or social ads, or whatever, don’t eventually become so disruptive to the experience that consumers gravitate away from the platform or away from the influencer in the first place making and undermining the influence of those different channels.

Chris Riback: That’s part of what I was thinking. The person who says, I’m not influenced by advertising and, well, I guess billions of dollars of advertising spend and companies would seem to indicate that while you might not think that advertising impacts you, but it probably does. Victoria, to close, what’s next? What are you curious about? What are you wanting to know?

Victoria Sakal: As we start to, I can’t even say emerge, but ebb and flow and inch our way towards a return to, and again, not even a return, a resurfacing into more of a normal lifestyle, the nuances that we talked about today, there’s on a global scale, there’s across categories, brands, consumers, all of this channels even, there’s going to be shifted behaviors among consumers, this is not news to anyone, but every single touch point consumers have with brands, with their employer, with their purchasing, is starting to be influenced by all of these things at the same time.

So what’s really interesting to me, as we think about things like employer brand, and we think about some of these social issues, we think about the importance of employees and how a brand is taking care of employees and our purchasing decisions. I’ll be interested to see, knowing that this is never going to, the cat’s out of the bag, it’s never going to totally return to how it was pre-pandemic. I’m very interested to see how things settle out. We even look ahead to the upcoming holiday shopping season, where we’ve got a ton of coverage planned, and it becomes interesting to understand how is that going to look different from last year? How is it going to look different in three years from now, and where are we going to net out on all of this?

Chris Riback: There is certainly more to come. And yes, I would imagine this has got to be a remarkable time for someone like you. The social change and impact of the pandemic and in our lives and our behaviors, and what that then leads to and what endures and what changes and what goes back to the way it used to be. It’s a bit of a golden era. Victoria, thank you. Really, really interesting stuff. And thank you for taking the time to discuss it.

Victoria Sakal: Likewise, thanks for having me. It was a great conversation and always interesting, and happy to be talking about data, as you indicated.