Edelman has been studying trust for over two decades. The Trust Barometer is the largest and longest standing study of its kind in the world, unpacking the drivers of trust in our bedrock institutions: government, business, NGOs and the media.

The study began in 2000 as Richard Edelman and the firm’s leadership wanted to better understand the root tensions that gave rise to the World Trade Organization (WTO) riots in Seattle in late 1999.

Since then, our study of trust has helped make sense of some extraordinary moments: 9/11, the global recession of 2008/09, BREXIT, the rise of Trumpism, just to name a few.  

There is no precedent for 2020. It was a year of exceptional change and challenge. And for most, it is a year we’d like to put behind us.

But there have been special editions of our trust data over the past 12 months that should give us a glimpse of what the 2021 Trust Barometer will reveal next February. And maybe it will help us start to make sense of 2020.

In the early months of the pandemic, we introduced a special COVID edition of the Trust Barometer. The data then confirmed what we were all feeling at the time, that people expect brands to shift resources to producing products that will help us manage the fallout from COVID-19. At that time, 64% said that Canada won’t make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role.

At the end of July, Edelman unveiled its annual Brand Trust edition, which underscored that buying on belief was the new normal. Nearly two thirds of respondents said they would choose, switch, avoid or outright boycott a brand based on its stand on big societal issues. It was clear from our data then that brands had become a powerful voice for change and that we now expect them to help solve some of our toughest problems. 

This was followed in November by a special Brand Trust report that focused on racial justice. This data made it clear that, among other things, Canadians expect brands to speak out and take a leadership position on systemic racism and racial injustice.

And lastly, in late November Edelman tabled the fourth edition of Investor Trust, which looked at the drivers of trust amongst institutional investors. Here we saw similar threads – the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives and the demand for companies – their boards and leadership – to be diverse and inclusive. Investor Trust also echoed the sentiment that businesses (and their leaders) have a new responsibility to step up and help solve some of the challenges we are facing.

In other words, community matters (more than just shareholders). Empathy matters. Values matter.

So, what does all this data foretell for Trust 2021?

More than ever before, trust will be earned, not bought. It will be earned by understanding a company’s and a brand’s responsibility to play a meaningful role in society, particularly at times of extreme hardship and change. It will be earned by considering and speaking to the full spectrum of people in a community, not just those buying the product or investing in the stock.

In 2021, we will see influence held by those who are empathetic and knowledgeable. 2021 will see more expectations placed on brands, but also the opportunity to establish deeper loyalty and engagement. 2021 will see even greater expectations placed on the businesses that house those brands, as well as the people who lead them.

The various cuts of the Trust Barometer in 2020 provided us with signals that point to what we expect will be the key drivers of trust in the coming year. We can reasonably say that the expectations placed on businesses and brands will continue to evolve - but the question of how significant this change will be and whether or not it will last remains unanswered.  

The launch of the Canadian Trust Barometer on February 17, 2021 will help us find the answers to these questions. It will also offer some perspective (and maybe even some closure) on 2020.  

David Ryan is an Executive Vice President and National Practice Lead, Corporate Affairs, at Edelman Canada