Canada’s big brands have taken a beating during COVID: survey

COVID-19 prompted a shift in loyalty toward companies that reflect consumers' values, the latest Gustavson Brand Trust Index shows.

Credit: MEC via Twitter

At No. 7, MEC is the only B.C.-based brand to make the top 10 in the 2021 Gustavson Brand Trust Index

The pandemic prompted a shift in loyalty toward companies that reflect consumers’ values, the latest Gustavson Brand Trust Index shows

To win over consumers in the wake of COVID-19, your brand had better be authentic.

That’s the key takeaway from the 2021 edition of the Gustavson Brand Trust Index (GBTI), an annual ranking of Canada’s most trusted brands.

The seventh annual survey reveals that the pandemic has brought authenticity to the forefront of consumer decision-making, with people showing loyalty to businesses that prove they’re being socially and environmentally responsible. That’s good news for B.C. brands like London Drugs and Vancity, which won high marks from Western Canadians.

Published by UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, the GBTI investigates overall brand trust: do consumers think a brand is trustworthy and acts with integrity? It also considers four other dimensions: brand authenticity (value-based trust), brand ability (functional trust), brand affinity (relationship trust) and advocacy (how likely people are to recommend a brand).

For this year’s edition, Gustavson surveyed some 9,000 Canadians about nearly 400 national brands in 33 categories. The top five for 2021: Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), Dyson, Lego, Interac and President’s Choice. At No. 7—down from first place last year—MEC Mountain Equipment Co. is the only B.C.-based name to make the top 10. MEC had previously dominated the No. 1 spot, temporarily dipping to No. 2 for 2018.

How the pandemic has affected consumer trust

Although COVID-19 has hurt many sectors, it’s been particularly tough on smaller businesses. Consumers want to see bigger companies helping out—and those that fail to measure up are paying the price.

“We’re in a crisis,” says Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business. “There’s a sense that we’re all in this together, and we expect the organizations that we’re doing business with to respond in a positive way and be seen not to be looking after their own, perhaps more narrow, short-term bottom line, but that they should be helping us all as a way to get through the crisis.”

Early in the pandemic, some companies saw an immediate rise in consumer trust, the GBTI study notes. For example, people thought Air Canada responded in a socially positive way by minimizing layoffs and keeping up payments to staff pensions and benefit funds. But the airline saw its trust rating fall after it let social media influencers fly for free and issued travel credits rather than cash refunds. At 365, Air Canada’s brand trust rank returned to pre-pandemic levels for 2021, well below its showing of 317 last year.

Brands pushed to support positive social change

The past 18 months have seen a change in consumer-brand relationships, not only due to COVID but also because of environmental and social movements. The Black Lives Matter movement has forced society to confront racial injustice, and consumers expect businesses to show support for their values.

Whole Foods suffered a major loss in consumer trust over the past year, falling from 23rd to 214th in the GBTI. The grocery chain and its parent company, Amazon, took heat after they banned employees from wearing slogans in support of the BLM movement on uniforms or face masks.

Although business is booming for Amazon during the pandemic, the company’s brand trust ranking has plunged since 2018, from 28 to 293, thanks to some questionable practices.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen lots of media reports of Amazon’s treatment of workers and of their employees and concerns about that,” Klein says. “We’ve also seen concerns expressed early pandemic about some of their pricing, when a lot of items suddenly became very scarce and you could find them on Amazon, but the prices were increased dramatically.”

Klein expects that as soon as consumers have a choice besides Amazon that aligns with their views, they’ll use it. “Right now, the alternatives are suppressed,” he says. “Once there are more viable competitors, it will be really interesting to see if they can sustain that position.”

Credit: Courtesy of Peter B. Gustavson School of Business

How B.C. brands fare on the trust scale

Two B.C. brands made the Gustavson index’s top 10 list for Western Canada. London Drugs ranks No. 3, while Vancity is in 10th place. Invermere-based Kicking Horse Coffee is No. 13 in the Western Canadian ranking and No. 22 on the national list.

London Drugs, which has been able to build consumer trust over the past five years, owes that success to acts such as offering shelf space to local suppliers having trouble reaching customers during COVID. “That’s having a really positive impact on trust broadly and also on likelihood to recommend,” Klein notes.

The study also shows that Vancity and Coast Capital Savings (ranked 61st in Western Canada) are more trusted than any of the national financial institutions. “It’s all around their values,” Klein says of the two credit unions.

Despite finishing seventh nationwide, MEC is No. 16 in the Western Canada ranking. After the former co-op was acquired by a U.S. investment firm last fall, its trust score dipped marginally. However, the drop in people’s likelihood to recommend the brand was more pronounced.

The most trusted telecom in this year’s GBTI, Telus ranks 269th overall, down just four places from 2020.

A generational shift

The GBTI survey shows that millennials are the age demographic least trusting of consumer brands. That could be because they have higher expectations than older cohorts and are seeing businesses fail to live up to those standards when it comes to values, Klein reckons.

He believes brands have a big opportunity to appeal to millennials, though: “If they can move up on the value scale, they can have a much bigger impact than a marginal increment on the other dimensions.”

Post-pandemic predictions

While the Gustavson study recognizes the need to make a profit, Klein thinks more companies are realizing the value in acknowledging the bigger picture as well as the bottom line.

“It’s getting away from what I think is a fallacy that businesses operated under in the past, that there’s some kind of a conflict between being financially successful and doing things that are socially responsible,” he says.

Given the pandemic’s devastating impact on local economies and growing consumer pressure for brands to be more socially and environmentally conscious, Klein says it remains to be seen how this trend will play out in a post-COVID world.  

“Obviously an interesting question is if it will stay that way. But certainly, we’ve seen that the whole issue of organizations playing a bigger purpose and being seen to be helping contribute more positively to society has come out quite strongly.”