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48-Hour Insights: What Makes A Brand Trustworthy?

We learned how 100 Gen-Z participants gauge whether a company is "trustworthy," and probed on when having established trust is most important to them.

Study by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Kate Degman

Many factors motivate a purchase. In a consumer landscape inundated with choice, a bevy of providers—offering all manners of access—vie for the attention of an increasingly discerning buyer. 18-24-year-olds represent part of "Gen-Z" and are the next wave of users; we've reported about Gen Z’s importance, their flexibility in identity, and how these factors translate to the ways they want to engage with brands. As such, we decided to examine how this critical cohort defines "trust" in the consumer brand space.

This group, digital natives as they are, is particularly savvy about the abundance of options available to them and therefore may have a particular relationship with and to this variable, especially as they develop their purchase and financial habits. Below is a top-line report from a brief examination of trust and the factors, characteristics, and qualities that comprise it.

The report below represents only a portion of the picture to be painted by these data. To get full access to the data from this study for yourself, alongside two other "48-Hour Insight" Studies, head here.

Study method

We collected 100 responses from folks between the ages of 18 and 24 using dscout Express, a qualitative feedback tool; feedback was entered via dscout. Participants completed 10 questions describing their perceptions of trust, the characteristics comprising it, and the categories of products where trust is and is not a factor. The data were collected in under 24 hours.

Questions included open-ended, scale, photo, and video prompts. The sample was broadly diverse across traditional demographic variables such as age, gender identity, ethnic identity, household composition, and income. Please see the Appendix below for sample breakdown.

Want to see the data for yourself? To get added to this project, and hear from these participants, sign up for free here.

"Trust" characteristics

Before mapping the factors comprising brand trust, participants listed four characteristics. Below is a frequency word cloud (pulled from dscout) representing the most-reported words and phrases:

Most reported was "quality," both as it applied to products and services and brand reputation. Most participants split their responses into two categories: factors related to the goods/services being sold, and the brand's reputation and ability to sell those goods/services in a manner comporting with fairness, equity, and general responsibility. Here are examples of this conceptual split from the data (responses are displayed as participants wrote them):

Quality, make wrong right, good reviews, truthful.

Jacob, 22, Utah

Transparency, quality, consistency, good citizenship.

Helen, 24, New York

Transparency in production practices, good quality items, promoted by people I trust, good communication with the customer.

Greta, 19, North Carolina

Sustainability, honesty, transparency, and good quality.

Trang, 21, Washington

Quality, longevity, appeal, positivity.

Tom, 23, New York

Good customer service, fair policies, environmentally conscious, and quality products.

Nina, 19, Nevada

Organic ingredients, high quality, effective, reasonable pricing.

Mary, 19, Massachusetts

Reliability, openness, acceptance, and congruence.

Justin, 24, Missouri

Frequently trust was described as a balance between characteristics of longevity, durability, and strength of the product or service, and the means of creating, promoting, distributing, and managing those products and services. These consumers—who are often described as consuming information at a rate never before imagined—display a nuanced balance in their interpretation of brands and the experience they promise to deliver. In all, trust is perceived by this cohort as quality products created by responsible, organized brands.

Price, especially for consumers still earning buying power, was important, however exceptions are made when brands don't have strong reputations; those with strong reputations, it seems, can command higher prices in the marketplace (although this wasn't universal, as some higher-priced tech company goods were described negatively; it seems there's a curvilinear relationship between price acceptance and brand reputation).

Media prompt: Which factors most contribute to trust?

After listing qualities that create trust, we asked participants to draw a pie chart indicating the relative importance of each quality. Their responses helped us better visualize, and more easily gauge, the interplay between trust factors.

"I don't trust brands when..."

Scouts were consistent in the reasons they did not trust a brand. When asked to state a brand they don't and their reason(s) for not trusting it, two themes emerged. One focused on the ethos, reputation, and business practices; the other on the quality of the products:

  1. 40% mentioned "Negative Brand Reputation"
  2. 30% mentioned "Unethical or Unhealthy Practices"
  3. 20% mentioned "Questionable Item Quality"
  4. 18% mentioned "Dishonest Marketing"

*The percentages add up to above 100% because coded responses contained multiple reasons for not trusting. Percentages represent overall frequency within the 100 scout sample.

The first two were often mentioned together, as in these examples:

They have the reputation of being corrupt and conniving and willing to do whatever it takes to come out on top.

Cole, 24, UT

Just because they don’t have a moral compass. There is no balance of profit and doing good.

Roberto, 18, CA

They are notorious for putting money above their customers and will engage in scummy practices into getting more.

Ryan, 21, CA

Taken together, this theme of negative ethos, brand, and/or practices accounted for nearly 75% of the responses, showing the importance of brand behavior to this cohort. Many responses mentioned specific bad behaviors, poor business practices, and recent news related to the outcomes. Even when participants mentioned poor quality of products, it was often paired with another theme, like dishonest marketing or lax customer service.

Their products are only reliable in breaking down over time, and their innovations are clear money-grabs.

Elisabeth, 24, OK’s made cheap and sold cheap, packaging is not easily recycled or reused, and the ingredients are full of chemicals that damage.

Grace, 21, NY

Examining the types of companies labeled "untrustworthy," technology companies including social media and hardware makers were among the most mentioned. Some were listed because of their recent appearances in the news, suggesting a potential recency effect. Retail brands were also well-represented, however the focus for mentioning these brands was more often the buying (and returning) experience, customer service, and product quality. Technology companies were far more likely to align with the reputation and ethical rationales for losing trust.

The most revealing data collected were video responses, where participants gave a tour of their trust maps and described why they assigned the percentages they did. Here, folks unpacked the ideas of trust and the theme of balance between product and brand quality. Below is a video highlight reel—created in the dscout platform—that summarizes major themes and characteristics comprising trust for these consumers.

These video clips were trimmed, compiled, and edited within dscout, utilizing our Media View tool.

Product category and the importance of trust

In addition to open-ended analysis on the characteristics and importance of trust as a concept, we asked participants to select product categories for which trust was—and was not—a factor when purchasing. The results aligned with companies that folks listed as examples of trustworthy and untrustworthy companies; namely, many technology and retail companies were named, and those categories showed up at the top of folks' rankings:

When asked to use the same list of product categories to rate the three product types where trust is not important, a theme of non-food consumables is evident. (Food, medicine, and other specifically bio-health categories were purposefully omitted to avoid conflating trust with notions of safety.) Interestingly, and likely a product of the on-demand consumption market this demographic is accustomed to (compared to the days of visiting big box retail stores), media like movies and music was within the top three of low-trust-need product categories:

Trust as growth/retention balance

What can brands take from this quick examination into trust? Among this subset of 18-24-year-olds, it's clear they're savvy about price-hunting, keep an eye on the public communications and behavior of companies, and have evolving expectations informed by their social circles. These consumers represent the next billion users for companies, and for those investing in user-centered research practices, the payoff is clear: keeping the human in one's business, whether in manufacturing practices or support, goes a long way to attracting customers and converting them to evangelizing fans.

Appendix: Sample Demographics

Below are some demographic breakdowns of the 100 Gen-Z'ers who completed this study:

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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