02/01/2013 06:54 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Building Trust in a Skeptical Age

It's been a fascinating time for anyone interested in the topic of trust, that most vulnerable of social and business principles. Lance Armstrong's confessional session with Oprah Winfrey was a transparent -- and ultimately fruitless -- attempt to redeem his reputation. After years of denial, the former supremo of cycling came clean and admitted he had doped and lied his way to seven Tour de France victories. It was compelling but not really convincing; his TV performance raised as many doubts as it resolved.

The Armstrong interview aired as we at Havas Worldwide were mulling over the findings of our recently published global survey of 10,219 people in 31 countries; the survey centered on questions of responsibility, community, and citizenship. Public trust in big brands and institutions has been a raw subject for more than a decade (remember Enron?) and has been made worse by the financial meltdown of 2007-08, which created an even more heightened atmosphere of looming disaster and deep-seated mistrust. Over the past few years there's been plenty happening around the world to deepen the trust deficit even further.

Some of the biggest brands in finance and banking continue to be tarnished by revelations of greed, incompetence, and dubious industry practices. Cases of child sex abuse by priests in a number of countries have damaged trust in the Roman Catholic Church. In India, high-level corruption scandals have tainted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's long-held reputation for honesty. The new Chinese government has made combating corruption a top priority in a bid to restore people's trust in the system. In the UK, a string of scandals has shaken public trust in politicians, the news media, particularly the BBC, and the police. In the U.S., a July 2012 survey by Gallup found that 87 percent of Americans want the president to make reducing corruption in the federal government a top priority.

Each new scandal echoes farther and faster through social media, further eroding trust and raising the question: Whom can people trust anymore? For media addicts who get a constant feed of news, the knee-jerk response is probably "nobody." But what's the attitude of regular people who aren't scanning newsfeeds 24/7? The findings of our Prosumer study show that consumers' levels of trust are unpredictable.

For example, the survey asked respondents how much they agree or disagree with the statement, "I trust big business." Levels of agreement varied hugely between countries, in surprising ways. It's been barely 20 years since China and Russia were centrally planned Communist economies replete with regular warnings against the evils of capitalism and big business. And yet, among big economies, trust in big business was strongest in China (83 percent), Turkey (72 percent), and Russia (67 percent), followed by Brazil and India (both 65 percent). The lows came from long-standing bastions of business: Canada (34 percent), the United States (33 percent), Australia (32 percent), Japan (30 percent), and the UK (28 percent).

So, is big business now really that much less trustworthy in Canada, the U.S., and the UK than it is in China, Turkey, and Russia? Or is it just that consumers in the low-trust countries are more skeptical? This isn't idle, academic questioning; it's a live issue for our work. Devising Creative Business Ideas and Social Business Ideas for our clients is about a lot more than getting their brands noticed; it's about earning consumers' trust and keeping it. The findings from the survey suggest that we and our clients face a tough task in English-speaking markets.

Tough or not, being a good corporate citizen is an increasingly important way for businesses to earn consumers' trust. Across our whole global sample, 69 percent said they prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for having a purpose other than just profits. Among the big markets, agreement was highest in China (85 percent), India (83 percent), Russia (77 percent), and Brazil (75 percent). Agreement was strong in the more skeptical English-speaking markets, too: Australia (68 percent), followed by Canada (63 percent), the US (62 percent), and the UK (51 percent).

Having a bigger purpose is clearly important for reputation, and so is good behavior. Almost two-thirds of our respondents (65 percent) said they avoided shopping at stores that don't treat their employees fairly. Among the big markets, agreement was particularly strong in Brazil (82 percent), China (76 percent), Turkey (68 percent), and India (67 percent). The low-trust English-speaking markets felt similarly about treating employees well, but less strongly; once again, agreement was highest in Australia (63 percent), followed by Canada (59 percent), the US (55 percent), and the UK (40 percent).

Earning and keeping consumers' trust in the English-speaking markets may well be tough for business, but it's tougher for politicians in every case. Our survey asked respondents to rate their agreement with the statement, "In general, I trust the promises that brands make more than I trust the promises politicians make." On this point, respondents in English-speaking markets were far more likely to agree than disagree, with these results: Americans, 53 percent agreement vs. 11 percent disagreement; Australians, 58 percent vs. 12 percent; Canadians, 52 percent vs. 11 percent; and British, 43 percent vs. 13 percent.

Savvy branding specialists understand that low trust in any field (e.g., finance, politics, cycling) represents an opportunity for another brand in that sector to stand out by earning consumers' trust. The doping scandals that brought down Lance Armstrong and have tainted professional cycling may have a silver lining: They've set the scene for a new hero to emerge who can win fairly -- and be proven without a shade of doubt to have done so -- and restore the sport's reputation. The events of the last couple of weeks remind us that the same opportunities exist for businesses. We can give people something to trust -- they will be looking for it -- and we will reap measurable rewards in return.