Humanizing Brands in an Age of Distrust

In the new landscape, where truth and authenticity are under scrutiny, brands must reconfigure how they establish and build trust, writes Zoe Chen.

Humanizing Brands in an Age of Distrust

In the new landscape, where truth and authenticity are under scrutiny, brands must reconfigure how they establish and build trust, writes Zoe Chen.

Let’s talk about trust. Or more accurately the lack of it now being experienced by brands. Where brands once traditionally served as symbols of aspiration and sources of personal identity and value, the relationship dynamics with consumers are now fundamentally changing.

Trust is the bedrock of any healthy relationship and is essential to achieving important brand markers such as consideration, likeability, desirability, and advocacy. But when it comes to Gen Zs in particular, trust is being eroded.

The ‘Culture of Trust’ study by Vice Media Group found an environment where trust levels have reached an all-time low. More than six in ten Gen Zs expressed a reduced level of trust in others compared to before the pandemic. And, more alarmingly, trust in key institutions – such as government, media, and brands – continues to decline.


 

This generation primarily defines themselves by their personal identity, values, passions, and interests, rather than through their affiliation with brands. In this new landscape, where truth and authenticity are under scrutiny, brands must reconfigure how they establish and build trust.

“While brands hyperfixate on maintaining an image of flawlessness, to the extent that apologising or acknowledging errors is often considered fatal, Gen Zs no longer crave perfection; instead, they seek the polar opposite.”

Brands no longer enjoy the assumed prestige they once held and attempts to build trust can frequently appear as marketing spin that falls short, or fails completely, to connect with those they want to. This audience is more inclined to scrutinize brands rather than applaud them for their purported altruistic initiatives.

However, in an environment characterized by skepticism towards institutions, there is an opportunity for brands to adopt new trust-building approaches founded on intrinsically human values like vulnerability, spontaneity, and community.


 

While brands hyper-fixate on maintaining an image of flawlessness, to the extent that apologizing or acknowledging errors is often considered fatal, Gen Zs no longer crave perfection; instead, they seek the polar opposite.

Being authentic and vulnerable is increasingly valued, as evident in the survey where nine in ten said they place their trust in brands that openly admit their mistakes. Transparency plays an equally vital role, with more than 80% of consumers putting their faith in brands that communicate their processes transparently.

To skeptical audiences, well-meaning endeavors such as supporting Pride month or extolling green credentials can appear at best, superficial gestures and, at worst, desperate attempts by brands to ride the coattails of trending cultural moments.

“Influencers are increasingly perceived as salespeople, and young people prefer to turn to their own communities for reliable information. They naturally trust unpolished, yet relatable content created by people like themselves, over super-perfect ads that feature brand experts or influencers.”

A striking 89% of people instead place their trust in brands that demonstrate kindness and empathy, while 61% trust brands that make them laugh. While it’s essential for brands to have a systematic and consistent approach to marketing initiatives, they also need to create space for spontaneous and unexpected acts of kindness that can break through the noise in the corporate landscape.

Image by Julie Ricard

When it comes to celebrities and influencers, marketers are falling over themselves to jump on the bandwagon, allocating ever larger budgets to engage these hard-to-reach audiences. But the selection criteria for these influencers often focus more on their reach rather than effective engagement with audiences.

“The message for brands is clear. Trust is hard won and easily lost. Adopting more inherently human characteristics will resonate more effectively than rigid, echo chamber marketing tactics.”

The dynamics of influence have shifted away from individual personalities towards collectives and communities. 7 out of 10 individuals said they place their trust in their local communities, while only 4 out of 10 trust influencers. Influencers are increasingly perceived as salespeople and young people prefer to turn to their own communities for reliable information. They naturally trust unpolished, yet relatable content created by people like themselves, over super-perfect ads that feature brand experts or influencers.

To navigate this age of distrust successfully, brands must put aside the facade of perfection and connect with their audiences on a deeper, more human level. By embracing vulnerability, kindness, and community, brands can rebuild the trust that has been eroding and forge meaningful connections with a skeptical and discerning consumer base.

The message for brands is clear. Trust is hard won and easily lost. Adopting more inherently human characteristics will resonate more effectively than rigid, echo chamber marketing tactics.


Featured image by Ayana Wyse.

Zoe Chen

Zoe Chen

Zoe is Strategy Director at Virtue APAC.

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