If trust was a commodity it would, due to scarcity, be an incredibly precious resource. Supply would be short and the price sky high. Over the past few years there’s been a complete evisceration of trust. A recent report by Edelman, the 2017 Trust Barometer, recorded two thirds of countries around the world are now ‘distrusters’.

That is, over 50% of the population say they don’t have any trust in the mainstream institutions of government, media, business and NGOs. It reveals a shockingly low 15% of people worldwide believe that the present system is working.

The results are hardly surprising; the past few years have been testing. Scandals have abounded across all facets of society and throughout the world. We’ve had the Panama Papers, sports doping in Russia, 1MDB in Malaysia, Ms Park in Korea, Petrobras in Brazil and falsified clinical trials from pharmaceutical companies.

That’s just scratching the surface. The list is depressingly long and seemly endless. Consumers also worry whether companies can be trusted with their personal information as data breeches at Yahoo, Ashley Madison and Sony PlayStation attest.

When it comes to the media, there is growing distrust as people believe media outlets have become highly politicised, that they don’t investigate properly due to economic pressures and that they follow social media too readily. The chief cheerleader for the anti-media movement is President Trump, who regularly rails against “the very, very dishonest media”.

Outside of mainstream outlets, we now have fake news and even fake fact-checker sites. It’s difficult to know what to believe. This lack of trust has even spawned its own terminology – post-truth, post-fact, and recently, the infamous “alternative facts”

There are however, some glimmers of hope in the Trust Barometer. More people trust business than they do government or media. In fact, business is almost on a level pegging with NGOs. And while trust in media institutions is decreasing, it’s growing for owned media.

People say they find a company’s social media page more believable than advertising. People are also increasingly turning to peers for validation and advice, ‘a person like you’ is now joint first with ‘academic experts’ and ‘technical experts’, as extremely, or very credible spokespeople.

What does all this mean for advertisers and brands? The first rule of course should be the old latin adage, primum non nocere, first do no harm. Business is currently still trusted, but this can’t be taken for granted. If people don’t believe you, if they don’t feel confident with your brand, they aren’t going to give you their custom. Trust needs to be nurtured and built on. The goal should be to generate sustainable trust.

  1. Provide utility

People don’t want to be sold to all the time and it’s difficult for most brands to create genuinely entertaining content (unless it’s with a partner). But, it is possible to build sustainable trust and deeper relationships by being helpful and providing utility. Authenticity is key and companies often have a lot more to bring to the table than they give themselves credit for.

Good companies create products or services that solve problems or address a consumer need. From this perspective they have a whole host of interesting and useful knowledge around specific niches or lifestyles that they can share with people.

More importantly, they have the credibility, data and authenticity to tell that story. Constant change in technology and regulation, coupled with an endless fragmentation of choice in products and services makes the world an increasingly complicated place.

Whether it’s finance, telecoms or pharmaceutical related, brands can have a role in helping people navigate it with their specialist knowledge, thereby building sustainable trust.

Relevant content also means it can be better, and more tightly, targeted; and let’s not forget that as well as engaging consumers, regular, useful content has the added advantage of adding substance to a brand’s owned platforms, populating them via better SEO and higher search rankings.

  1. Listen and act

A large part of why trust has imploded in recent years is that people didn’t feel their voices were being heard, leading to disillusionment, a sense of being wronged and ultimately a desire for change.  For companies, it makes good commercial sense to listen.

We are now in a position where this has never been easier. Through the use of content and social listening tools, we can analyse, at scale, conversations and sentiment to derive insights about topics consumers are talking about, trends and how people are feeling about things.

These powerful insights allow us to act proactively, shaping and creating new content that addresses concerns, confusion, or a desire for further information.

Social media pages are an incredibly rich source of information and feedback, but often underutilised. They are now the preferred route to gain customer service for most people. Brands often worry about negative comments on their pages, but negative comments show the page is authentic and that the brand is transparent, engendering trust.

It is how the complaints are visibly dealt with that’s important. A quick response, some empathy and taking the conversation private is all that’s really required in most cases to show you’re a brand that listens and acts, thereby building sustainable trust.

  1. Build communities and advocates

As the Edelman research shows, consumers look to ‘people like me’ to get trusted opinions and advice. Technology has elevated their ability to connect with, and tune into, their peers on a global scale. For most people search and social are now the primary platforms for discovering and consuming information and content.

It’s critical for brands building sustainable trust that when people are searching for information on brands, or around certain topics, they come across content you’d like them to see. That should involve a holistic approach of utilising properly optimised original content, alongside partner content.

The partner content would ideally be a broad range, including media partners, influencers and brand advocates, the latter two reflecting ‘people like me’. Media partners and influencers can provide credibility and reach whilst brand’s social media accounts can be used to identify key people that can become brand advocates; make them feel special and vocal by sharing exclusive news, product information and previews with them.

Crucially, brands shouldn’t forget about their employees as advocates, they too should be listened to, cultivated and empowered as brand ambassadors to create content and spread the word.

The last few years have demonstrated that trust isn’t a zero sum game. It can evaporate quickly and once gone, be difficult to regain. At the moment companies are more trusted than governments or media, but that’s not guaranteed.

The tide of scepticism and cynicism could easily infect and overwhelm business too. Adopting a participatory approach, which puts consumers’ interests at the heart and helps them navigate the storm fringed world around them, is key to generating sustainable trust in a trust free world.

This article originally appeared in Marketing Interactive.

Author: Nik Vyas, Practice Lead, Content, Publicis Media Singapore