In peer power we trust

When opinion formers were asked who they trusted most, their answer was ‘a person like me’, so pure branding communications may not be enough to turn customers into brand advocates

Trust – or rather lack of it – has significant implications for companies’ bottom lines, as demonstrated recently when Google faced criticism over corporate policy and Arla suffered from consumer backlash over issues beyond its control.

In the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, more than 80% of respondents in most markets say they would refuse to patronise a company they did not trust. More than 70% say they would be prepared to “criticise them to people they know”, with one third sharing their opinions and experiences of a distrusted company on the Web.

The Edelman Annual Trust Barometer tracks the attitudes of 2,000 “opinion leaders” worldwide – these are 35- to 64-year-old college graduates with a household income of about $75,000 (&£43,000) a year who show a significant interest and engagement in the media and economic affairs. The survey looks at what institutions, companies and sources of information these “opinion formers” trust and what drives that trust.

The rise of “peer power” is most noticeable in this year’s survey. Respondents say their most credible source of information about a company is “a person like me”, rating higher than doctors and academics for the first time since the survey began seven years ago. In the US, trust in peers has risen from 20% in 2003 to 68% now – the trend is also evident in the UK, with a rise from 34% in 2003 to 59%. Interestingly, those surveyed consider rank-and-file employees more credible spokesmen than chief executives (42% now compared with 27% in 2003 in the US).

The global brand that respondents say they trust most is the Microsoft Corporation, followed by companies that are iconic in their home markets, such as Toyota in Japan, Haier in China, Samsung in South Korea and Petrobras in Brazil. In the UK, the most trusted brands are WWF, Sony and Microsoft. In France, no commercial organisation makes it to the top three Рthe most trust is held in non-government organisations, such as M̩decins sans Fronti̬res.

Consumer trust is also influenced by national origin, industry sector, marketing and corporate policy.

Respondents in Europe apply a significant “trust discount” to major US brands, such as Coca-Cola (US: 65 % vs Europe: 41%), McDonald’s (51% vs 30%) and Procter & Gamble (70% vs 44%). Significantly, no “trust discount” is applied to non-US global brands operating in the US or any other market (eg Sony is rated trustworthy by 74% in Japan and 79% in the US).

Some US companies suffer less of a trust discount abroad than others: this demonstrates that while the country of origin has an effect on reputation abroad, how a company is perceived to operate and how it communicates in local markets can influence opinion.

Western companies are making strides in winning trust in China: big gainers this year include Citigroup, Procter & Gamble, Shell, Unilever and UPS. All are now rated trustworthy by more than 75% of Chinese respondents – up from less than 50% in 2004. Less than 40% of respondents express trust in global companies headquartered in emerging markets such as China and India.

Technology and retail companies tend to be the most trusted, while those in the energy and media sectors are the least. Pharmaceutical companies face considerable scepticism in the US and Germany, while financial services companies fare much better in the US and Asia than in Europe.

Television is the big loser in media trustworthiness. When asked where they turn to first for trustworthy information, only 29% of US respondents cite television, down from 39% three years ago. The Web is now mentioned by 19%, up from 10% in 2003. The same trend is evident in the UK, where TV has declined from 42% to 33% as respondents’ first choice, while the internet has risen from 5% to 15%.

Newspapers, often thought to be the most serious casualty of the Web’s popularity, show rankings essentially unchanged in most markets at about 20%. In fact, they remain the most-trusted medium for respondents in France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Korea and Italy. Trust in the media generally is low across all countries surveyed except China (73%) and South Korea (49%).

Marketers, already conscious of media fragmentation, must ensure that their messages emanate from various channels and they need to adopt strategies that take into account the natural advantages and disadvantages associated with country of origin. The rising trend in peer-to-peer communications means marketers need to focus less on top-down messaging and instead develop employees and consumers as credible brand advocates. This was a theory ten years ago – it is a necessity now. â¢

Janette Henderson

Trust is increasingly recognised as a key asset for businesses, enhancing relationships and bottom-line success. It therefore needs to be closely nurtured and guarded; “trust stewardship” is becoming one of the top tasks of modern chief executives.

In recent years there has been a sharp rise of interest in the company behind the brand. Every stakeholder group – from government and media to employees and consumers – has become more interested in the corporate values behind the products and how these values translate into behaviour.

Companies with a finger on the pulse of what is driving trust among key stakeholders will have the opportunity to engage them and build genuinely productive relationships; those without it will struggle.

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