Opinion: Be authentic, and trust will follow

Credit: Courtesy of University of Victoria

Which company tops the Gustavson Brand Trust Index—and why

In March 2018, Judith Kasiama called out Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) and the outdoor industry on social media for lack of diversity in its advertising. What happened next was remarkable, and an object lesson in brand trust.

At UVic’s Gustavson School of Business, we’ve been measuring Canadians’ trust in brands for five years now. Our Gustavson Brand Trust Index ranks more than 300 brands each year, based on a sample of over 7,000 consumers. We break Brand Trust into three types: Functional Trust, Relationship Trust and Values-Based Trust. We also measure consumers’ likelihood of recommending the brand to others.

Functional Trust is the baseline: does the brand do what it promises? Is it good value for money? Relationship Trust is the next level: how well does it look after customers? We all expect these things of the brands we buy, and a brand that fails on these two dimensions won’t be trusted.

MEC does well on both of these, as do many other brands. What distinguishes MEC is its Values-Based Trust.

We’ve found that there’s more to brand trust than value for money, or how the brand treats its customers. Today’s customers want more: they want brands to represent them, to espouse the values they believe in. That’s Values-Based Trust: whether a brand looks after the environment and communities. MEC excels in this area.

In the years we’ve been conducting the survey, we’ve seen how easily brands can lose overall trust when they are seen to betray Values-Based Trust. Last year, Tim Hortons slashed its workers’ benefits and breaks; as a result of the ensuing media explosion, the iconic Canadian brand fell dramatically in our rankings, from 27th in 2017 to 203rd in 2018. This year, it has barely recovered, to rank at an insipid 142nd. In 2015, Volkswagen was found to have cheated on diesel emissions tests; VW’s brand trust remains on the skids, at 305th out of 314 brands on the index.

Not MEC. The outdoor equipment and clothing retailer ranked No. 1 for Values-Based Trust, with a score far higher than any other brand. MEC also ranked high on the more traditional trust measures, and as a result it was No. 1 for overall Brand Trust. This is not new: MEC consistently ranks among the top trusted brands every year.

What is it about MEC that makes it the most trusted brand in Canada, and the one that best aligns with customers’ values? Could other brands learn something from it? By studying MEC, could they develop a marketing strategy to gain trust, recommendations and ultimately sales? Perhaps this is the wrong starting point.

Two other brands vie for top spot each year: the Canadian Automobile Association (No. 2 in this year’s index) and Costco (No. 3). Like MEC, these two brands are member-owned cooperatives. Their customers are not traditional “customers” as much as participants with a real stake in the brand.

Member-ownership is all about authenticity: the MEC brand is not there to line the pockets of powerful shareholders but for the folks who shop there, loyally and regularly. That’s why they trust MEC: they know they are an integral part of the brand’s future and have a voice in its strategy.

By March 17, MEC reached out directly to Kasiama. After learning about MEC’s commitment to changing its practices, Kasiama signed on as a MEC Outdoor Nation Ambassador. Later that year, MEC’s CEO, David Labistour, issued an open letter acknowledging that MEC had not represented the diversity of Canadians and vowing to change. There was no shifting of blame, no PR spin: MEC had done wrong and was determined to do right.

Labistour clearly knew what was at stake. Brand trust comes from authenticity. Anything else is just trustwashing—using trust as a marketing strategy—and customers will see through it.

David Dunne, director, MBA programs, and professor of international marketing and service innovation, Gustavson School of Business, and one of the key brains behind the Gustavson Brand Trust Index. His research has been published in business and design journals, including Harvard Business Review and Academy of Management Learning & Education.