Gustavson School of Business Big brands lose their edge in 2021

Consumers’ trust in brands is linked to authenticity and over the past year, Canadian shoppers have shown an acute awareness of whether a brand is true to its values or opportunistic, according to a new study.

The results of seventh iteration of the Gustavson Brand Trust Index 2021 has found that previously trusted brands such as Amazon, Whole Foods, Air Canada and Tesla, has dropped in the rankings as consumers have felt that the companies’ values no longer aligned with their own.

"More than ever, CEOs are being viewed as societal leaders entrusted to take a stand on social issues, from climate change to addressing racial injustice," says Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business. "As the world climbs out of the pandemic, brand awareness is no longer the currency of business—consumer trust is the priority. There is a need for companies to rethink how they are driving positive societal change."

Early in the pandemic, many grocery chains offered hazard pay to their employees, only to discontinue the benefit a couple of months later. Whole Foods also faced numerous lawsuits from employees after it was reported that they were being disciplined for wearing Black Lives Matter apparel. In Canada, employees were initially prohibited from wearing Remembrance Day poppies due to the company's dress code policy.

"Amazon may be past its peak in terms of brand trust," adds Klein. "While more Canadians have used Amazon services than ever before, concerns about the company's broader impact have resulted in Amazon dropping sharply in this year's study. Whole Foods had always prided itself on its employee culture, but the company's brand trust and advocacy scores plummeted in 2021, and employee relations may have played a part in that."

A key finding is that younger consumers are less trusting than older consumers. Millennials are less trusting compared to older generations. This finding appears to be due to the younger generation's inclination to assign their loyalties to proactive organizations who they perceive to be helping solve long-standing societal issues and contributing to making the world a better place.

How the grocery industry fared in the study

Many major grocery stores were quick to implement protective measures when the pandemic hit. The stores were seen as not only protecting their employees; they were also showing care toward the public by minimizing risks to shoppers. They took all the right actions to build trust. In a follow-up survey in April 2020, Loblaws, Real Canadian Superstores and Walmart scores on employee treatment jumped by 19, 15, and 13 points, respectively. Many frontline grocery workers received $2-per-hour pandemic pay supplements during the first wave of the pandemic last spring. However, so-called hero pay was cancelled in May.

The report’s 2021 data shows that all major grocery brands’ scores on employee treatment went back down to the same level as they were in the pre-pandemic study; some lost even more ground, and short-term actions to boost business may have longer-term consequences that brands must consider. 

Pandemic drove packaged goods trust

Thanks to the global pandemic and pantry loading, major packaged food companies such as General Mills, Kellogg’s and Campbell’s experienced a spike in sales. What's more, with working from home and being cooped up, consumers were also more likely to snack throughout the day. These behavioural changes align with the findings from the Index. President's Choice and Quaker Oats saw an increase in their trust scores by eight and six points, respectively, and both made it to the top ten most trusted brands list in 2021. The trust score for Kellogg's jumped by 11 points this year. Trust in Schneider’s Meats, Stouffer's, Wonder Bread, Dempster's Bakery, Campbell's Soup, Kraft Foods, Maple Leaf Foods and McCain Foods also all increased. 

Read the full report here

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Stacey Newman ([email protected])

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