It's increasingly clear that if you want to hold onto your consumer base, you'll have to start by both earning and reinforcing their trust in – and loyalty to – your brand.
- Consumers claim to want to purchase from sustainable brands and expect the brands they shop from to share their values, yet they have been increasingly distrustful of corporate sustainability claims.
- The traditional marketing funnel has become much more dynamic, requiring consistent engagement past the point of purchase between brands and consumers to earn consumer trust.
- Companies rely on their products being used sustainably by consumers for the maximum environmental impact, and communications play an important role in influencing a behavior shift among consumers.
- Bringing a company’s target audience along its corporate sustainability journey through both education and continuous engagement is vital to building consumer trust.
Over the last several years, we seem to have entered what can only be described as the “age of distrust.” Given the spread of misinformation or lack of information altogether around sustainability, people are increasingly wary of the information they receive. That suspicion now extends to the brands consumers buy. To overcome these shifting attitudes, companies need to think beyond the traditional marketing and communications strategies that have worked so well in the past for their sustainability efforts to truly resonate with the consumer.
A recent survey from Harvard Business Review found that 65% of respondents want to buy from more sustainable brands, but only around 26% actually do. Though this contradictory behavior is unlikely to be for any one reason, consumer distrust stands out as one likely culprit.
This presents a significant obstacle for businesses, both for advancing their sustainability agenda and maintaining their brand standing. As communications and awareness about sustainability grow, so do consumer expectations. The lack of progress in the big picture coupled with high-profile greenwashing cases culminates to create an overarching sentiment that those expectations aren’t being met.
In order to make progress on their sustainability goals and overcome the mounting cynicism, business leaders have to understand the role that consumer trust plays, what they’re up against and what steps they need to take to best engage their target market.
Why does consumer trust matter?
There are many benefits to building trust with your consumers. At the end of the day, it’s more than an ethical call to action — it’s good for business. According to a recent AI-enabled study, by BCG’s Henderson Institute, “the 100 most trusted companies generated 2.5 times as much value as comparable businesses at year-end 2021.” Those companies also boasted P/E multiples that were 47% higher.
In terms of consumer trust specifically, trust in a company’s brand or values is one of the top buying considerations. Consumers think it’s important to trust the brands they buy from, and a brand’s environmental impact plays a significant role in building (or diminishing) that trust.
The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that 52% of respondents believe that businesses are not doing enough to address climate change and expect them to do more. Ultimately, businesses can’t expect to sell or advance their goals without earning the trust of their consumers.
This indicates a shift in the overall marketing funnel. While previously following a linear model (awareness, interest, consideration, evaluation, purchase), it’s evolved into something much more dynamic. Successful marketing efforts are now viewing the marketing funnel as a marketing loop, following up with prospects-turned-customers to continue the journey past the purchase decision point. According to Edelman, consumers now expect consistent engagement with the brands they purchase from, whether through social media, providing feedback or participating in brand initiatives. And even at the point of sale.
It’s increasingly clear nowadays that if you want to hold onto your consumer base, you’ll have to start by both earning and reinforcing their trust in – and loyalty to – your brand.
People see the brands they shop from as an extension of themselves or an expression of their personality. More and more, consumers are choosing to shop from companies they believe share their values. They want companies they engage with to encapsulate their beliefs, but the sustainability claims brands make are met with increasing cynicism. Consumers assume that companies are either doing nothing or hiding their negative impacts if they don’t claim anything.
However, while many consumers expect companies to act more sustainably, many don’t adopt sustainable practices themselves. Consumers play an important role in advancing your company’s sustainability journey with how they use a product — companies rely on their consumers using their products sustainably during the use phase in order to make the maximum impact.
This is an opportunity for companies to transform their communications strategy around sustainability to create more connections with consumers and influence more sustainable behavior. A good communications strategy will not only achieve the aforementioned goals but also stand out from competitors.
What’s creating and fueling distrust, and what are companies up against?
While interest in sustainable products is rapidly growing among consumers, a recent report from Compare Ethics found that only “one in five consumers trust brands’ sustainability claims.” This can come from a lot of ambiguity and insufficient education about corporate sustainability. In judging claims, context is key.
Instead of standalone claims, which can provide comparability elements but don’t create any connection between brand and consumer, data should be utilized as proof points that link back to a company’s overall sustainability ambitions and benchmarks. There needs to be a clear narrative around environmental metrics with enough evidence to back up company claims. For example, labeling your product as emitting 1.5 kilograms of CO2 won’t mean much to consumers, as it’s only a single data point. Is 1.5 kgs good, bad, or somewhere in between?
On the other hand, it’s important for relevant sustainability information to be simplified enough for a general audience to understand. The plethora of certifications, labels and claims out there around sustainability can be confusing for consumers. Regulatory frameworks in some countries have attempted to fix the issues with sustainability communications, but without a common framework to compare products or provide additional context — such as a QR code or link to learn more about a product’s environmental impact — consumers are left without even the most basic understanding of what your company’s sustainability communications actually mean.
What does good look like?
Bringing consumers along a company’s sustainability journey through education and continuous engagement is vital to building consumer trust. The general population needs a foundation of knowledge around sustainability, and it’s up to businesses to provide the necessary context as to why their product is the less environmentally impactful choice. Increased awareness and education around sustainability opens the door for consumer trust and can go a long way toward influencing the necessary behavior shift to make less environmentally impactful decisions and use products more sustainably.
Just because there is increasing consumer awareness and regard for brands’ sustainability initiatives doesn’t mean your company should immediately introduce messaging about sustainability (especially if you haven’t done anything yet). This can lead to (or be interpreted as) greenwashing, which puts your brand and reputation at risk.
That’s not to say that your company shouldn’t say anything at all. Brands should be transparent and accurate about their sustainability initiatives wherever they are on their transformative journey. Due to increasing media and consumer scrutiny, many companies wrongly think that the safest course is to say nothing, a practice fittingly called greenhushing. With consumer expectations growing, this will most certainly backfire, as people infer that the company isn’t doing anything — or simply doesn’t care. Additionally, greenhushing has industry-wide effects, as concealing progress and decreasing transparency can influence competitors against taking sustainability action. Businesses need to find a balance between not saying enough and saying too much if they wish to build awareness and trust around corporate sustainability.
Sustainability communications don’t follow the same path as typical marketing communications. Sustainability is still a relatively new topic for many companies, and almost everyone is starting out in a suboptimal place. Consumers want to see the work that goes into advancing corporate goals, not just the end result. Unlike traditional communications, sustainability communications consist of progress check-ins more than just promoting milestones and successes.
Consumers aren’t the only audience that needs to be brought on the journey. It’s worth mentioning that on some level, everyone in your organization is a brand ambassador. Including a robust internal education about your sustainability efforts and what they mean beyond the recycling policy in the breakroom can go a long way toward reinforcing the message. Make sure everyone internally understands both the big picture, and how their individual role can play into the sustainability strategy and how to talk about it the right way.
Though this is particularly true for marketing and communications functions, it can easily apply to supply chain managers, procurement or sales. Make sure your teams are engaged with the right message at all competencies and ranks so their brand ambassadorship doesn’t inadvertently sour relations with the customer base.
What brands can do to build (or rebuild) consumer trust
A Zeno Group study found that consumers are 4.1x more likely to trust and 4.5x more likely to champion a brand with a strong purpose. Having a solid communications strategy around your sustainability practices is key to engaging with consumers and building their trust. Whether you need to build a new strategy or tweak your old one, there are a few common steps that your company can take to adopt the best sustainability communications strategy.
- Embed your sustainability communications strategy into your overall business strategy. You want to be authentic and honest with your consumers when it comes to communicating about your sustainability initiatives, so it should relate to the core of your brand and mission.
- Focus on impact over effort. The best stories are those of substance: communicate the actions that will end in results. Everything you do and communicate must stand up to scrutiny (which is unlikely if your company doesn’t already have a fully-formed sustainability strategy in place).
- Create transparent, authentic, and easy-to-understand communications. It takes courage to admit your company’s not perfect, but it’s important (and endearing) to be honest with your stakeholders about where you are in your sustainability journey. When companies are open and honest about their vulnerabilities, including their impacts and actions against climate change, consumers tend to trust them more and find them more attractive. Producing straightforward communications also takes some of the lift off of consumers, allowing them to focus on choosing the least impactful option and making more sustainable choices while using a product.
- Create an educational foundation for your consumers on sustainability. Utilize your communications to inform your target audience about their role in your company’s sustainability journey, and make this information easy to access. Sustainability during the use phase of a product can be just as important as production, so it’s important to earn consumer trust in order to influence their sustainable behavior.
- Ensure that your internal teams are trained on sustainability. Each team needs to understand their role in contributing to your company’s sustainability goals and how to communicate about them within the context in which they work. This is especially important in marketing teams to avoid inadvertent greenwashing. Additional benefits include improvement in talent acquisition and retention, as younger people are more interested in working for companies with ESG commitments and strong values. According to GreenBiz, one-third of 18- to 24-year-olds rejected job offers from companies with a less-than-ideal ESG performance.
- Practice ongoing engagement with your consumers. Take your customers along your sustainability journey, and educate them about your company products’ impact on the environment. This includes everything from how the product is made to how consumers should use and responsibly dispose of it. As they say, consistency is the foundation of trust.
- Measure consumer trust and be prepared to refine and evolve your strategy. Market trends are ever-changing, and your company has to be adaptable to the interests and needs of your consumers. By keeping tabs on industry data and measuring consumer trust, you can also identify the progress you’re making in your sustainability communications journey.
How you communicate about your corporate sustainability strategy can make or break your progress in achieving your goals. It serves as a vital step towards sustainable business transformation and, if done correctly, will earn the trust of both your consumers and other relevant stakeholders such as investors or employees.
At the end of the day, your sustainability communications strategy should be compelling, authentic and true to your brand — an evolution of your current communications strategy. The two should ultimately be one and the same. It’ll help prove to consumers that your sustainability strategy is core to your organization, rather than an add-on to appease them or other stakeholders. Furthermore, by allowing room for honesty and vulnerability around your progress, consumers will feel more inclined to step into their role in your sustainability strategy. Building trust with your consumers will not only advance your sustainability goals but also improve your overall business performance, as brand trust leads to brand loyalty and ultimately – the marketer’s holy grail – brand advocacy.