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Building consumer trust should be a high priority

Would you buy a boat, engine, product or service or do business with someone you didn’t trust? Most Americans wouldn’t.

But although the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust,” will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2016 (replacing E pluribus unum, first adopted in 1782), such trust is selective and some marketing methods and platforms engender significantly less trust than others, reports Edelman, the self-described “world’s largest independently owned PR firm.”

Trust, Edelman says, is an asset that enterprises must properly manage to be successful in today’s complex operating environment and is a forward-facing metric of stakeholder expectation. Its global survey results are clear — 80 percent of respondents said they chose to buy a product or service because they trusted the company behind it. Conversely, 63 percent said they refused to purchase a product or service because they distrusted the company.

With a “trust” rating of 64 percent, online search engines, says Edelman’s latest annual Trust Barometer, are now the most trusted source for general news and information among the informed public, surpassing traditional media at 60 percent, hybrid media at 53 percent, social media at 48 percent, and at the bottom of the list, corporately owned media, at 47 percent.

Now in its 15th year, the Edelman Trust Barometer is based on surveys in 25 countries (see

Although four of five of the above sources have been gaining trust during the past few years, the one that has been losing ground is traditional media. As a journalist steeped in traditional media, I was taken aback by Edelman’s assertion that trust in journalism, once a noble calling, has been superseded by Facebook posts.

How and why this has come to be is open to debate, but it probably has much to do with the 24/7 news cycle. Since the passing of Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” it has been increasingly filled with talking heads who fill the airwaves and pages with abrasive and partisan opinion.

As I write this, there is a storm of controversy surrounding suspended NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who has admitted to embellishing his account of surviving rocket fire during a trip aboard a military helicopter at the onset of the war in Iraq in 2003.

Although he has apologized, his apology can best be described as convoluted. Time will tell whether the American public will continue to trust Williams, who heretofore has been the most popular anchor in the nation, but the harm done to the integrity of traditional media cannot be ignored.

It’s no wonder that the public has turned inward to those they think they can trust. When it comes to creating content for social networking sites, it appears that 72 percent trust information that friends and family post on social media, blogs and other digital sites; 70 percent trust academic experts. At the other end of the spectrum, content from a company CEO is trusted by 46 percent, somewhat above the 40 percent who trust elected officials.

It doesn’t take much perspective to see how a lack of trust continues to affect the fortunes of sectors that include the recreational boating industry. For many years, the industry was anything but at the forefront of the consumer movement. Warranties were extremely limited and aftermarket service was an afterthought in many cases. Although much has improved in recent years, the fact is that the industry still has an image problem, and many consumers think they get better service on a mid-priced automobile than on a $100,000 runabout.

As the economic climate improves and sales start inching upward, now is the time to reconnect with existing customers and acquire new ones by using a wide array of online tools that are at your fingertips. I would suggest that building trust in the overall boating experience should be one of the industry’s top priorities and could be an important key to turning around an industry whose unit sales last peaked in 1989.

Building trust requires high levels of engagement, Edelman says, and is all about starting peer-to-peer conversations and making sure that your content is easy to find. For most institutions, starting those conversations requires more than a viral video or shareable GIF. It requires a thoughtful, informed point of view on important industry issues and customer concerns and a strategy for using that intellectual property to power conversations among multiple stakeholders.

According to Edelman, the most important drivers of trust are clear and open communication. Integrity, which includes transparent and open business practices, is the most important trust attribute, along with engagement, which includes listening and the need to communicate “frequently and honestly” about the state of a company’s business. Respondents indicated that areas such as excellence in operations or products and services, though important, are simply what is expected.

Although many of Edelman’s prescriptions would appear to pertain mainly to B2C marketing, I would argue that B2B marketers should be mindful of the limitations inherent in what used to be called advertorials, but which now go by the buzzwords native advertising and sponsored content.

These strategies can attain a degree of “trust” when they are properly identified and provide useful information. Generally speaking, the B2B audience is more likely to be aware of the source and the purpose of the sponsored content and accept the information with a knowing grain of salt. The B2C audience, on the other hand, has no such expectations. Consumers are searching for transparent information and will look with suspicion at anything that appears to be overly self-serving.

Conde Nast’s recent announcement that it will allow marketers to work directly with editors at its magazines to create “branded content” is particularly insidious. Although it may generate additional revenue in the short run for hard-pressed magazine publishers who are losing ad dollars to digital media, it’s a slippery slope that may well destroy some of their very well-respected brands in the long term — particularly among millennials who have much higher expectations when it comes to trust and social media.

If you want your message and/or brand to be trusted and don’t want your limited advertising dollars to fall on deaf ears, here are a few thoughts to consider when you develop your next ad campaign:

  • Don’t request that your ad be placed right next to editorial content that features your product or service. It just looks suspicious.
  • Don’t advertise in a publication that is filled with nothing but rave reviews about products and services. Limited content means limited readership and engagement.
  • Don’t produce self-congratulatory or fawning advertorial content that only your boss will find interesting. It won’t get the results he expects.
  • Don’t underestimate American consumers by thinking they don’t know the difference between bona fide editorial and advertorial. Most do, and those who don’t are probably not great prospects.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000 and testified more than 30 times before a number of congressional committees.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.



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