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In a Post-Pandemic World, Is Trust the New Consumer Currency?

One thing is certain as the world begins to emerge from full lockdown — trust and transparency have never been more important. Over the past three months, we’ve surveyed over 1,000 US consumers to better understand their priorities and concerns as the pandemic evolves, and we’ve discovered a new consumer emerging from this period of uncertainty.

The post-pandemic consumer puts a huge emphasis on trust. With the exception of health care providers, the vast majority of US consumers lack trust in all major institutions. And according to the EY Future Consumer Index (FCI), that distrust extends into retail and consumer brands. In fact, only 21 percent of consumers reported trusting brands, and only 20 percent reported trusting retailers. As consumers realize that COVID-19 and its ripple effects may continue for some time, it’s imperative that retailers shift their business models to address consumers’ new expectations by creating meaningful digital brand experiences and solidifying trusted relationships.

Retailers and brands that pivot to meet consumers where they are placing their trust and where they find value will be in the best position for post-pandemic success. Boldness is essential to keep loyal customers loyal and to establish new relationships. Here’s how you can develop and communicate trust as a core business pillar.

Reinforce the authenticity of your brand message

The EY Future Consumer Index shows 40 percent of US consumers regard authenticity and honesty in a brand as extremely important when making a purchasing decision.

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It’s simple, authenticity breeds trust and trust breeds loyalty. And with 44 percent of consumers saying that in the next one to two years, they’ll prioritize brands they’ve purchased from before, companies can’t afford to erode trust.

Across all sectors, from luxury to grocery to clothing and footwear, organizations must double down on this now to maintain relationships in the future. It will require you to define who you are as a brand, communicate that to your target consumer and, most importantly, live those values authentically. But authenticity doesn’t live and die in communication. It’s present in the way you do business, the companies you have in your value chain and the products you sell.

COVID-19 has caused many consumers to look more closely at where they’re spending and what they’re spending on. Of the possible influences on purchasing behavior, authenticity, clear labeling and transparent origin or product source are among the most important to consumers. Expectations around transparent and sustainable sourcing and quality of products — what they are, how they’re made, where they come from, how they get to us — have only intensified as a result of the pandemic. Consumers want to know about the products they purchase and understand the values of the companies they buy from.

Shorten your supply chain and consider local sourcing

Consumers are also placing increased trust in what’s close to home. Fifty-two percent of respondents said over the next one to two years, they’d prefer to buy domestic brands produced within the US, and 46% said they’d prefer local and independent brands produced by businesses in their community. To meet these evolving demands, you must prioritize greater transparency and sustainability, increased resiliency and quicker time to market across all touch points. One way to do this is to diversify sources of supply and find ways to bring all or part of their value chain near or onshore.

From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies’ supply chains were immediately put to the test. A giant spotlight illuminated the fragility of supply chains. As retailers continue to roll out reopening plans, a network of efficient supply chains will be key to meeting consumers’ changing behavior and understanding their new spending habits in order to build long-lasting trust. How do you achieve this?

For the last decade, the industry has been lengthening and leaning out their supply chains, with sourcing for things like apparel coming primarily from Asia — but the consumer is pushing back. Long, international supply chains disconnect transparency because they introduce complexity, opaqueness and multiple players. In turn, this makes data-sharing across the value chain, which fuels transparency, a challenge. With a shorter, more secure supply chain, organizations bring consumers closer to their products, which in turn builds implicit trust.

Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, senior fellow at the Wharton School (UPenn) and fellow at the Manufacturing Policy Initiative at Indiana University, said it well: “Right now, transparency isn’t possible because supply chains are simply too complicated, and many companies don’t have enough visibility themselves. Shorter, simpler supply chains will make it easier to provide transparency to consumers in sourcing, production and delivery.”

Consider digital as an enabler of trust

Social distancing has forced many retailers to rethink their in-store experience and limit consumer movement, leaving e-commerce as one of the preferred options for many people to make purchases. And this shopping behavior will not change anytime soon; 48 percent of people say they’ll be shopping less frequently overall, and 37 percent note that their shopping frequency will increase at online retailers in the next month. Moving forward, it will be up to retailers to look for new ways to manage product demand, shift production capacity and rethink product portfolios and marketing tactics in a safety-first, direct-to-consumer economy.

And just because consumers are shopping more online doesn’t mean the importance of the storefront will diminish. The most successful companies are those that can create a seamless omnichannel shopper experience. It’s so important to building digital brand experiences that keep your consumer coming back. Brands have to get creative to provide the experiences consumers expect digitally, and connecting it to the safe, trusted experience that a storefront can offer a shopper in their own community.

Start building trust and earning loyalty today

This is a critical time for retailers and brands to step up and not play it safe. As Americans get back to some semblance of normalcy, engaging in the pre-pandemic shopping habits will look much different and trust will be the single biggest factor that impacts where consumer choose to return.

COVID-19 has showed us how quickly consumer demands can change based on what’s happening in the world around us. The brands that listen and respond quickly to these shifts in expectations are those that will come out stronger. Retailers that figure out how trust fits into their business strategy and identity stand to come out ahead during the pandemic and beyond.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

Kathy Gramling is EY Americas Consumer Industry Leader. She has more than 25 years’ experience in the consumer goods and retail industry. In her role as the EY Americas Consumer Industry Markets Leader, she leads teams in aligning the right parts of our organization to resolve our consumer clients’ most pertinent issues. Gramling also serves as the global client service partner at Ernst & Young LLP for several significant consumer clients. Kathy has deep experience across brand management, consumer and shopper marketing, multichannel, salesforce execution, trade funds management and marketing mix optimization. Prior to joining the EY organization, Kathy spent three years in Paris and 10 years in London leading teams across Europe and Africa.