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Costco allowed first responders to skip the socially-distanced managed lines to enter their warehouses. Photo Credit:

The New Rules of Brand Trust – Examining Today’s Trust Champions

Consumers are re-examining their priorities, challenging existing norms, and calling on brands to take action that aligns with their values, supports their communities and advances social and racial equity in new and powerful ways. The pace of this change is accelerating as never before, with consumer pressure mounting on companies to take an active part in social, environmental, and political issues to address the evolving needs of today’s new consumer normal. Consumers are actively demanding name changes, proposing boycotts and rethinking where they shop and spend.  The news is filled with examples:  A logo change for Uncle Ben’s, renaming international brands at Trader Joe’s, and the trending hashtag #goyaway in response to Goya Foods CEO’s praises for President Trump at the height of a COVID crisis that’s hitting Latinx communities hard.   In this environment, brand trust with consumers has never been more important.

In this second of a weekly series of blog posts, we comment on which food, drug and mass brands are successfully building relationships with consumers by not only delivering value but appealing to their hearts.  The current analysis is based on a proprietary survey of 1,920 US consumers fielded between late May and early June of 2020. Critically, the survey fieldwork was conducted during the weeks surrounding the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.

Ten Years Measuring Trust

To understand how a brand’s stance and initiatives advancing social justice issues relates to consumer trust, we asked a series of questions about their attitudes, behaviors, loyalty and perceptions toward leading US food, drug and mass brands. We examined how 17 national and large regional retailers studied stack up against each other and against themselves since we last conducted our related Global Brand Trust study 10 years ago.  Like our Global Brand Study published in 2011, we questioned participants on dimensions of both explicit trust and implicit trust.  These dimensions included:

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Brand Trust has Eroded Overall

The survey results should be a wakeup call for all retailers and brands.  The food, drug, mass retailers included in both the 2011 and 2020 studies received lower absolute scores across almost every dimension surveyed. Any number of factors could contribute to this meaningful decline in the perception of brand trust during the last 10 years.  The downward shift in consumer perceptions toward all brands studied is observed amidst of period of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty and an increasingly connected world with greater access to information and demand for brand transparency than ever before.

Today’s Leaders vs. Laggards  

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The stand-out retailer from this year’s study is Costco, with the highest average score across all dimensions probed, followed by HEB, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Publix, rounding out the top five retailers rated. Costco and Trader Joe’s maintained their leadership as trust champions from our prior study in 2011, while Aldi replaced Whole Foods in the winner’s circle (HEB and Publix were not included in the previous study). These results bode well for the value-minded retailers amongst the food/drug/mass set as well as those with a strong community and customer service orientation.

Costco’s leadership on trust is consistent with their leadership on initiatives and policies that elevate the experience for their customers and employees alike. Shoppers love Costco for its friendly return policy, low-priced food court and the treasure-hunt-like experience. Moreover, in recent years, the retailer has stepped up its efforts related to sustainability and community-minded initiatives. A few standout examples of these efforts include a shift to 100% recycled boxes in 2019 and an investment in lighter-weight custom trucks that reduce fuel consumption. Costco also goes above and beyond for their employees. They operate a confidential employee ethics hotline, provide affordable health care coverage for full and part time employees and were early movers on recognizing and protecting store staff during the pandemic with temporary pay raises of $2/hour, masks and gloves provided, plexiglass shields and reduced store hours so that staff have time to rest.

The lowest scoring retailers overall were Wegmans, Walgreens, Safeway as well as Instacart and Walmart which tied for last place. Walmart was also a relatively poor performer in the 2011 study. Though trust and loyalty are not the only drivers to shop at Walmart, eroding trust during the pandemic appears to be top of mind for the company, preceding Walmart’s recent announcement of a chainwide mask mandate to keep customers, staff, and local communities safe. Instacart should also be particularly concerned about these results, far underperforming Amazon Fresh by comparison. The pandemic provided the delivery platform with a boost as they were thrust into “essential business” status during the pandemic, but with competing services nipping at their heels, sustained success will depend on their ability to improve consumer perceptions.

Customer Care = Employee Care

We have long believed that to deliver a truly exceptional customer experience, the employee experience cannot be overlooked. This correlation between customer care and employee care was affirmed in this year’s survey results as the same 4 retailers scored highest in “they care a lot about their customers / customers are very important to them” and “they work hard to treat their employees well.” Unsurprisingly, these 4 were also amongst the highest scoring retailers overall. They are Costco, Trader Joe’s, HEB and Publix. Whole Foods took another hit regarding perceived level of customer care. While they were one of the top 3 highest scoring retailers on this dimension in 2011, they were very middle of the road in 9th place based off this year’s results. It’s possible these results reflect a change in perception following the retailer’s acquisition by Amazon as well as their highly vocal and activist customer base.  Among all retailers studied, those who made a recent purchase at Whole Foods are the most likely to feel it would be best for the future if brands and retailers take an active part in social, environmental, or political issues, with 71% agreeing vs. only 29% who felt retailers and brands should stay out of these issues.

Responding to Consumer Demand for Action

A look back at the last 10 years of consumer data illustrates both subtle and seismic changes in how consumers perceive the role of brands in today’s social and political discourse.  Our survey results demonstrate a whopping 74% of consumers now agree it’s incumbent upon retailers to ensure a positive and safe working environment for all qualified people regardless of age or disability, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. Another 59% of all consumers believe that consumer-driven companies should take an active part in advancing policy issues of the day.  In the coming weeks, we will continue to discuss consumer perceptions toward values-based retailing and the growth and consumer appetite for more mission-driven business models, including B corporations.

Jill Bromann and Alyson Fischer contributed to this article. Jill directs McMillanDoolittle’s consumer insights practice and is experienced in project management, research analysis and strategic planning. Jill leverages her cross-functional knowledge in quantitative and qualitative research techniques to tell unbiased stories through data that uncover insights and identify strategic solutions for her clients. Since joining the team in 2013, Jill has conducted extensive work in survey research, customer intercepts, focus group moderation and in-depth interviews to assist retailers and suppliers in North and South America, Europe and Oceania.

Alyson leads client projects from planning to completion and provides cross-functional support for the partners in the execution of business analysis, engagement management and strategic planning. Since joining the team in 2016, she has advised clients in North America, Europe, Asia, and Central America on both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Additional areas of expertise include merchandise planning, assortment strategy, inventory management, productivity analysis, competitive benchmarking, forecasting and data visualization.


McMillanDoolittle is a premier international retail consultancy bringing deep experience with world class clients. Our partners have extensive experience interpreting the retail marketplace and converting insights into successful strategies. We help clients develop innovative solutions in strategy development, the customer experience, new concepts, brand performance, retail performance improvement and retail intelligence services.

  • Douglas Dougherty

    July 21, 2020 at 7:11 am Reply

    I worked at Target in the 1970’s with Norm McMillian-one of the founders of McMilian
    Doolittle. Norm was the executive facilitator and instremental in creating Target’s
    first mission statement. One of the main components of that Mission Statement was
    Brand Trust expressed as customer guarantees. I believe Brand Trust was one of keys to Target’s early success and was surprised to see Target as only 10th on the list.

    If you would read Target’s original mission statement, created in about 1972, with Company name omitted, most of you would be able to immediately know the Company was Target Stores. I did this exercise with a couple college classes who successfully
    identified the Company.

    • Jill Bromann

      July 21, 2020 at 5:47 pm Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Doug! We couldn’t agree more and take pride in McMillanDoolittle’s strategic role in the development of the foundational guides for growth at Target.

      Even if perceived consumer trust in the company is not outstanding at this unique point in time, Target’s growth and longevity speaks to a history of building trust with customers. We also found that Target outranked national competitors (e.g. Walmart, Walgreens, CVS) across the board on key trust dimensions studied. Stay tuned for more data and insights unveiled in the coming weeks!

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