The new meaning of Trust today (or How VW could regain society’s trust)

VW stocks_reputation_crisis

When will VW stocks recover?

One of the main functions of corporate communication is to create stories and narratives that can build, from a symbolic perspective, certain impressions in people’s minds. These impressions naturally will lead to a level of favourability to the organisation, and by doing so, the company expects to build trust. One of the tools for doing this is advertising, because companies need mass communication to create demand to their products.

But what is trust? Let’s not get complicated. A good definition says that trust is a combination of affective beliefs about institutional behaviour (which we could call “ trustworthiness”) and the perceptions of how competent the institution is. Or, to make things simpler: the perception of honesty and competence respect to a firm.

I would say that, of course, there is no change in the concept/meaning of trust, regardless the Volkswagen crisis. Trust continues to bear the same meaning. However, I would argue that for corporations that aim to project the impressions of trust in people’s minds (institutional trust), there has been significant changes in recent years, and the way trust has to be acquired needs to be reconfigured. Trust cannot be built just through the message, or brand image, anymore.

As a recent Nielsen study puts it “most forms of advertising and communication – such as TV ads, company websites, and promotional emails – have all seen a decline in trust among UK consumers over the last two years”. If this is true for every brand, can image for a brand with a reputational crisis?

In the light of this reality, what companies should do to regain or build trust? I would say that is more about behaviours and transparency, and less about messages. Society is increasingly sceptic of brand manipulation, with widespread access to information, and through social media, people can create frames that provide a different perspective on the brand’s communication.  The notion of trust cannot rely only in traditional sources of communications, especially in the case of Volkswagen, that built a positioning based on its eco-friendliness.

In this example, in order for this company to regain its authority in the automotive sector (which justified the “Das Auto” slogan) several innovations will have to occur in the organisation´s strategy, in the corporate communication processes and tactics with different stakeholders, and most of all, in the management´s mindset. Trust will be regained with actions, not words (and perhaps this is starting to happen with the recent management changes in the organisation). And, naturally, it will take time to repair the damage to the brand. I guess, in the end, it will be a big re-invention for this iconic brand.

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