Who Do You Trust? It Might Depend on Your Generation

Feb 7, 2020 12:00 PM ET

In a collection of essays called Trust, Inc., business school professors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner write: “The truth is that trust rules. Trust rules relationships. Trust rules your influence. Trust rules you team’s cohesiveness. Trust rules innovativeness. Trust rules brand image. Trust rules financial stability. Trust rules performance. Trust rules just about everything you do.”

Morning Consult has recently released a special report on The State of Consumer Trust, and it contains some surprising findings. More than two-thirds of the survey’s respondents say that, in general, Americans have become less trusting in recent years; only eight percent of Americans have a lot of trust in the news media; and less than one in 10 Americans have trust in the U.S. government.

On the other hand, 55 percent of respondents say they tend to trust the average American company, and that companies must do something wrong to lose that trust, and 74 percent say they trust the average major company to deliver consistently on what they promise. Looking at 100 major brands, the average company is trusted by 59 percent of the respondents and mistrusted by just 13 percent.

It’s a truism that trust is built over the long-term but can be lost in an instant. Accordingly, it behooves leaders to consider how trust is viewed from different generations, and to ensure that both their business practices and communications include the various factors that drive trust in different age groups, which the Morning Consult research suggests have vastly different levels of trust when it comes to specific brands and institutions overall.

Despite the divergent perceptions, there are attributes that are key to building trust across consumers –chief among them being reliability. Key factors that drive consumers’ perceptions of reliability, according to Morning Consult, include whether companies protect their personal data; make products that are safe, and work as advertised; and consistently deliver on what they promise, among other factors.

However, Gen Z-ers are more likely to prioritize ethical matters when considering which brands to trust. The issues that younger Americans are more likely to prioritize include:

  • The company has strong ethical or political values.
  • They treat employees better than they are required to do by law.
  • They produce products in an ethically responsible way.
  • They treat employees equally, regardless of factors like race or gender.

And, Gen Z-ers and Millennials are less likely to purchase from brands if they are aware of ethical issues.

At the same time, in a separate report on Brand Activism, Morning Consult found that 42 percent of consumers say that brands are trying too hard to appear as if they care about anything beyond sales compared with 36 percent who say they enjoy learning about companies’ efforts to promote their community commitments. Gen Z-ers, however, were evenly divided.

Given these generational differences, Morning Consult identifies these three areas where they believe brands have opportunities to build trust through better messaging to help all consumers understand their commitments and business practices:

  • Protecting data privacy;
  • Not hiding important information in the fine print; and
  • Treating employees better than required by law.  

What does trust look like to the next generation and your organization? The future of trust is literally in your hands.

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

CSR Now! Is a weekly blog by Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation, designed to get at what's happening in corporate social responsibility today -- from the point of view of a corporate practitioner.

Rohan Ramsay
American Express
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