Trust has become an undervalued commodity by brands

The advertising industry is in a trust crisis but there’s time to turn things around

Lucy Taylor

Chief Growth Officer MullenLowe Group UK


Looking back on how things went in 2021, it is clear the advertising industry is in the middle of a trust crisis. Brands have become disconnected from the need for credibility that underlies their work in a last-ditch attempt to stay afloat in a sea of suspicious and ineffective advertising; but, there’s time to turn things around in 2022.

We live in a hyper-modern, million miles an hour world. It’s thought that the average adult makes more than 35,000 decisions a day. These range from no-stakes decisions, such as choosing a TV programme to watch, all the way up to high-stakes choices that require us to consider a multitude of different factors. This is where trust comes into the picture as a deciding factor, simplifying the choices we make by allowing us to discard options that we don’t already believe in. Take buying food, for example. This is an industry where reputation and trust are critical when it comes to brand success, and standards are certified by official bodies, as is the case with the Red Tractor quality mark. And, while many factors enter into the decision-making process, trust is often the decider.

It only takes a second to break trust

Lucy Taylor, Chief Growth Officer, MullenLowe Group UK

Trust pays across all industries, giving brands better ROI and creating value for them. As we enter into the new year, there is no better time to reflect on 2021, and consider what brands can do to turn over a new leaf and, in doing so, rebuild consumer trust in their practices. 

What have we done to create this lack of trust?

According to research on public trust from the Advertising Association and Credos, advertising ranks among the least trusted industries. This mistrust is especially prevalent among older generations (65+), which is worrying considering the over-50s demographic are the primary drivers of spending in the UK. In fact, by 2040, people over 50 will contribute to 63% of all spending in the UK. So, what’s triggered this lack of faith in our industry? Well, the research has cited several negative drivers.

Above all, bombardment is the biggest driver of the public’s distrust, followed by suspicious advertising. Even consumer champion Martin Lewis has called upon Boris Johnson to hold tech giants responsible for scam adverts. Unfortunately, the public has a much broader definition of advertising than the industry itself, which is why the influx of misleading and fraudulent ads are perceived negatively and ultimately damaging legitimate advertising. Alongside these, data privacy, unhealthy advertising, and targeting vulnerable groups are also major factors. Whilst there have been steps taken towards this - especially in digital advertising - with the introduction of stronger privacy legislation in the last year, there exists a greater need for a strong sense of ethics in how we advertise than ever before. Wide-reaching - and, by extension, often impersonal - advertising methods, such as programmatic advertising, will need to shift priorities from their current blanket approach to become more ethical and more human-centric. This simple change in approach will help to instil greater confidence that our individual privacy is being respected and also likely increase returns for advertising companies whose ads would otherwise have gone ignored.

Representation is another issue among certain age groups. 74% of those over 50 think that they’re never represented in mainstream ads, and 72% believe that the representation portrayed of themselves is an outdated stereotype.

Yet, while these are certainly troubling issues, identifying them is the crucial first step our industry needs to turn things around.

Years to build trust - and just one second to break it

Trust is complicated, and building customer relationships based on trust is not something a brand can achieve overnight. Bizarrely enough, its importance is also often underrated. The venture capitalist Patrick McGinnis has coined the term FOBO - Fear Of a Better Option - to describe a person’s inability to make a decision when presented with a range of options. In essence, the fear that you may miss out on a better option can prevent you from making a choice at all. McGinnis states that one of the deciding factors in making these decisions - especially when they carry high stakes - is trust, as this means we know we are placing our future in good hands.

It’s unfortunate, then, that it only takes a second to break trust. And, although relationships can be rebuilt, a betrayal of trust is likely to leave a bitter taste. According to research from Adobe, 71% of customers in the UK are likely to stop purchasing from a brand that breaks their trust, which is why it’s vital for them to continue nurturing the existing relationships they have with their customers. This in itself appears to be something they’re struggling with, and COVID-19 hasn’t helped.

This near-two year long pandemic has caused many consumers to reflect on their choices and question their former loyalty. This means that brands are receiving more mixed signals than before, which leads them to focus on their own priority: the next sale. And, while that will help them achieve short-term financial gain, this approach can be destructive in the long run. Strategies need to change before it’s too late.

We should be looking at how we can empathise with consumers, and focusing on creating emotionally engaging communication. The most impactful campaigns are inevitably those that elicit an emotional response, and they are badly needed now to rebuild more human relationships. 

Consumer trust isn’t being given the airtime it should

Most brands will probably know if their price point is right. Time and resources will be invested to measure and review it, but that same level of analysis is not applied to the field of consumer trust, which is pretty disappointing.  After all, what is lost can’t be regained so easily. By giving trust a greater emphasis, gauging it regularly, and finding better ways to quantify it, brands will be able to develop strategies that nurture their customer relationships more efficiently, and recognise if and when these relations are at risk.

Steps in the right direction?

If we study the factors that help build public trust, we see the clear value that having an underlying social mission, a responsibility to benefit society and make concrete changes, holds. While the pandemic has been devastating, a huge positive to come out of it has been seeing brands take part in much-needed conversations around the topics - diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and mental health - that shape our society and which are well overdue a rethink.

A great example is HSBC’s ‘Vicious Circle’ ad by Wunderman Thompson, which centred around reconnecting homeless people back with society. By working with one of the most overlooked groups in the UK, HSBC showed its commitment to helping those who were vulnerable. As a result, it contributed to positive growth in brand associations, including a 12% increase year-on-year for the statement: “HSBC UK cares about customers.”

Alternatively, consider the example of Knorr’s ‘Eativist’ campaign, a global campaign encouraging people to change the world by changing what’s on their plates. This reached over five million consumers and generated over 1.9 million active engagements, so it’s clear that consumers are keen to see brands play their part in movements such as the response to climate change.

Additionally, being aware of frequency, remaining consistent, and making sure advertising is inclusive are also key drivers that brands should be mindful of. Of course, in a world where media strategies are wraparound, and where our Instagram feeds are often our point of contact with brands, it is more important than ever for advertisers to consider how their ads will be interacted with. The ads we see should resonate with us on the same emotional level as content posted by our friends and our favourite pages. If brands were able to create this same connection with consumers, then trusting relationships would naturally flow from this: there is no greater motivator than emotion, after all.

We in the industry still have a long way to go, but it’s not too late to turn things around. We’re in a unique position to start afresh as we head into the new year; to hold ourselves to higher standards than before. None of us like being bombarded, scammed, or manipulated. Let’s make sure we don’t do it to others! Instead, let’s work together to create more inclusive and emotionally-driven campaigns, and, in doing so, rebuild the public’s confidence once again

Guest Author

Lucy Taylor

Chief Growth Officer MullenLowe Group UK


Lucy is Chief Growth Officer for MullenLowe Group UK working across MullenLowe, MullenLowe Profero, MullenLowe salt and Mediahub leading the agency’s collective business growth strategy and effectively elevating the Group brand within the UK market. Undeniably a people person, Lucy has relentless drive and optimism (and often far too much energy…). 15 years in the industry has honed her ambition, thoughtfulness and determination to drive results. Within the first year of Lucy joining MullenLowe Group, new business revenue increased 39% YOY and since her start date the agency has won Bayer, Bupa, Formula-e and Nutella to name but a few. The agency has been named Effectiveness Network of the Year 2020, been listed in Campaign’s Best Places To Work 2021 and climbed two points in the Campaign School Report. Lucy lives by the principle ‘deeds not words’. She is the agency’s Executive Sponsor for Adnet Zero and for MullenLowe Group’s LGTBQ+ network, PRIDE. She is an active member of Bloom and Extinction Rebellion. During her lockdown maternity leave she worked with the McCartney Foundation to create and launch a behavioural change campaign aimed at helping people to tackle climate change through the food they eat.

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