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How Did 2020 Affect Brand Trust for B2C Marketers?

If 2019 was the year of companies building brand trust, then 2020 was the ultimate test of putting it into practice.

Last year saw consumers truly push brands to earn their trust. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and the turbulent 2020 U.S. election cycle were brought to the conversational forefront. Many questions were posed about consumer brands’ role in racial inequality, and some organizations openly stated who they supported in the U.S. presidential election or promoted the “get out the vote” initiative.

After brand trust was redefined last year, Iterable wanted to know how marketers felt about the subject. We surveyed 500 B2C marketers from the U.S. and U.K. to examine how their organizations responded to last year’s events and find out what’s in the cards for 2021.

Here’s what they had to say.

1. 2020 effects on consumer communications will not fade.

The overwhelming majority of marketers felt the pressure to adapt to 2020’s challenges. In fact, 87% of respondents said their company felt the need to change its marketing strategies to better build consumer trust.

The most likely factor of this strong sentiment for change is the COVID-19 pandemic. Marketers ranked the top changes to their customer communications as being more crisis-response driven (25%), more empathy-driven (24%) and more sales-driven (23%). These changes were reflected in many different consumer marketing campaigns throughout last year.

Shoe retailer Allbirds pivoted its marketing to aid in relief of the COVID-19 crises by offering donation options for healthcare workers on each purchase. Additionally, Glo, an online provider for yoga, pilates and meditation, took an empathetic approach by offering free online classes so participants could work out at home. The online dating industry applied a more sales-driven approach, with some apps offering up to 50% off premium memberships to entice consumers into trying virtual dates from home.

With the pandemic still a prominent part of our daily lives, 91% of respondents said they plan to maintain these new customer communication strategies in 2021.

2. Cause-driven marketing campaigns will continue.

As widespread social issues coincided with the pandemic and an unprecedented presidential election cycle, most brands took action in response.

Although the coronavirus was a prevalent topic for brands and consumers, issues like racial inequality also came to a head, prompting many companies to take action.

In fact, more companies issued public statements on racial inequality (47%) than on public health (40%) in 2020. Brands also made statements on the following issues last year:

  • Gender inequality: 34%
  • LGBTQIA pride: 32%
  • Climate change: 29%
  • Politics/the 2020 election: 23%
  • Defunding the police: 21%

To bring these social issues to light, brands implemented a mix of marketing tactics, as well as grassroots initiatives. The tactics marketers leveraged for their cause-driven campaigns included:

  • Partnering with an organization/non-profit/charity on an initiative to benefit those affected by the issue: 57%
  • Creating social media content that advocated for the issue: 57%
  • Donating a portion of profits to an organization: 46%
  • Sending direct messaging about the issue to their customer base: 36%
  • Giving employees paid time off to volunteer or protest: 22%

The campaigns used to drive various causes are representative of last year’s dominant social conversations. But these efforts are not simply a marketing blip. Brands show no signs of stopping their social cause initiatives—79% of companies plan to continue campaigns with messaging on one or more of these issues in 2021.

3. Marketers will push brands to be even more socially active.

There’s no doubt there was a dedicated effort from brands to speak out on social issues in 2020. However, a slight majority of marketers (51%) still don’t think their companies went far enough in their initiatives on social issues.

Yet while there’s a near-split on whether respondents thought companies did enough or not, 83% also agreed that their company should remain politically neutral, with 41% saying they “strongly agree.” Most marketers on both sides cited ethics as their rationale for why their company should remain neutral when it came to political partisanship—or not (see table below).

Reasons brands should remain politically neutral Reasons brands should not remain politically neutral
1. I believe it is unethical to bring politics into our brand: 41% 1. I believe stating your political stance as a brand is the right, ethical thing to do: 57%
2. Political positioning alienates certain customer groups, negatively impacting our brand: 31% 2. Political positioning resonates with our brand’s target audience: 28%
3. Political positioning does not resonate with our brand’s target audience: 27% 3. Political positioning provides a positive business outcome for our brand: 14%

The findings reflect a divided general population and a growing movement to decouple social inequity issues from politics: Just because a brand is politically neutral does not imply that they’re ethically neutral.

And this desire from marketers to do more about social issues in an ethical way will carry over to brand strategy, as 74% said it’s likely that their organization will change its consumer trust strategy in the next year.

Continuing to Build the Bridge of Consumer Trust in 2021

As marketers reflect on 2020 and apply their learnings to 2021 strategies, one thing is clear: Ethics and morality will be core tenets of brand trust strategies for the long term. However, how far brands will go on publicly addressing social issues and stating political stances remains to be seen.

While it’s clear that marketers don’t want to plant a political party flag in their campaigns, supporting certain social causes does carry certain ramifications. It’s inevitable that supporting a certain social cause will not resonate with some audience segments, regardless of political party affiliation.

However, as we’ve seen through our own work with Iterable clients, today’s audiences want to know a brand’s beliefs and values. And by leveraging tools such as zero- and first-party data, brands can better identify what resonates with their customers and speak to shared beliefs in their marketing messages.

Not all marketers agree on how brand marketing fits into social issues. But even with continued social justice efforts and the progressing rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, marketers are well aware that they can’t put 2020’s brand trust initiatives in the rearview mirror. The conversations and issues that influenced the 2020 conversation aren’t going away and consumers are still holding brands accountable for their values and actions.

To dive deeper into Iterable’s research, register for our webinar “Building Brand Trust in a Year Like 2021,” on Feb. 25, at 9:00 a.m. PST.

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