Maintaining Consumer Trust in a Meme-Driven World

Photo: Max Elder, Research Director at the Institute for the Future

The digital landscape of 2019 is completely different than the landscape 10, five or even one year ago. Today, we face a rewarding, yet rocky path across the Internet where one muddled sound bite, mistyped tweet or viral meme can ruin decades of reputation building.

Beyond missteps, brands are increasingly expected to be authentic, relatable and funny (thanks, Wendy’s and MoonPie) – without trying too hard and still maintaining trustworthiness.

So how can businesses earn and keep consumer trust, in a second-by-second, tweet-by-tweet environment where erosions of trust are a constant threat?

Max Elder, research director at the Institute for the Future, joined CPG’s top leaders at the 2019 Leadership Forum to begin the discussion on how brands can remodel trust for today’s consumers.

“Trust used to flow upwards to experts and authorities, but now it’s flowing sideways to strangers, peers and neighbors,” said Elder.

As children, we were told not to talk to strangers. Today, thanks to Uber and Airbnb, we get into their cars and stay in their homes. Trust has dramatically changed, with mistrust shifting to politicians, reporters or others in power.

But perhaps surprisingly, consumers are increasingly seeking authority from brands. Seventy-six percent of people surveyed as part of the Edelman Trust Barometer said that CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than waiting for the government to impose change — up from 65 percent the previous year.

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb also joined the trust conversation and talked about his experiences working in the government, where trust continues to decline. But Gottlieb managed to buck that trend at FDA, taking a consumer-focused approach that earned him respect and a reputation for being the consumer’s regulator.


“The best approach that I’ve found when you have major challenges, was to own them right up front. Be very visible with them, talk about what the challenges were very openly and candidly, and what the limitations were in terms of your ability to affect a good outcome,” he said.

Trust and the perception of trust will only keep evolving in the years to come, and with that will come new challenges and opportunities that government officials, corporate executives and consumers will have to navigate.

“The issue of trust was extremely important to the agency, and it was something that was hard to earn and very easy to lose,” said Gottlieb.