The Trust Virus: The Future Of Brands And Giving

Y&R London’s CEO Jon Sharpe discusses the tactics needed to fight rampant consumer cynicism undermining brands and charitable giving.

The Trust Virus: The Future Of Brands And Giving
[Photo: Flickr user Susanne Nilsson]

Hate politics, fake news, alternative facts, inaccurate polling, corporate tax evasion, Olympic doping, sub-prime lending, duplicitous politicians, emissions probes, economic uncertainty, and the orange cherry on the cake, Trump. Welcome to the perfect storm of public disillusion.


A trust virus has infiltrated our psychological software destroying goodwill and our collective confidence in society. In a recent Ipsos Mori survey, charity chief executives were grouped in the same level of mistrust as trade union officials, bankers, and business leaders, with only 44% of the public trusting them to tell the truth. Trust, like privacy and truth, is fast becoming an outdated notion, a mission critical flaw when trust lies at the heart of great brands and charitable fundraising.

Brands and charities must work harder than ever to convince an increasingly desensitized consumer and hostile media that goodwill initiatives are not mere marketing devices to boost sales or donations. The notion of charitable giving risks being lost in an arms race for “likes” and lottery tickets. Truth is now backcombed, lies are rebranded, and perception trumps reality. But where does that leave the future of giving?  The good news is last year, according to the Charities Aid Foundation, the United Kingdom came fourth in the World Giving Index, after Australia, the U.S., and bizarrely, Myanmar, which topped the poll of 140 countries.  But the UK tops the poll of European countries (Ireland came second). So charitable giving it seems is in all our nature. But for how long?

We are entering a new age of brand activism where corporations must lead and inspire their consumers in a world where all others have let them down. Trump’s anti-immigration policies caused a backlash among brands and prompted CEO’s to step up to defend their employees from feeling alienated. Finally, in this maelstrom of world upheaval brands can prove they can add true authentic value, beyond token sponsorship, or ingratiating affiliation. Charitable partnerships can move beyond mere mass market manipulation. Brand ideology and activism can and must restore faith in a beleaguered consumer.


I spoke with Oxfam’s Head of Communications Jack Lundie who joined the charity in 2014, and has used an integrated multi-channel approach to leverage Oxfam’s cut-through in mass media to discuss themes including economic inequality, UK poverty, Gaza and Nepal, all serving to remind people of their core mission–to end the injustice of extreme poverty. He feels the trust virus is tangible.

“Support is the lifeblood of our movement, so the trust that underpins giving is a critical dependency for Oxfam. Hard-earned cash, precious time and people’s own voices are entrusted to us on a daily basis, so the idea of a trust-eroding virus that threatens this engagement demands a powerful response.

Trust at the heart of giving is resilient and can be restored. Since we damaged it through inattentiveness to our fundraising agencies, we are grateful that self-correction and humility seem to have helped our supporters move on. The aggravation of this trust-crisis by media with a vested political interest in discrediting aid is unhelpful, but data reflects resilience in our supporters, whose moral conviction comes from a deeper place than media campaigns can easily dislodge. Trust is also bolstered by transparency about how we spend our supporters’ money, our efficiency and impact, and we welcome that but we’re also happy for consumers who ‘give n’ go.’ Our focus is on the supporters’ right to choose their own terms of engagement.

But this virus is as much about distrust as it is trust. Tackling poverty requires us to campaign for systemic, policy-based change, and the impact of recent political turmoil presents us with a new challenge. When emotional truth can be conjured with rhetoric devoid of fact, when arguments are increasingly won in the heart rather than the mind, and when the ties that held facts, truth and trust together are unpicked, the creation of distrust in Oxfam by those threatened by our calls for change becomes easier. Spiralling economic inequality has to be tackled, but in doing so, we have prompted attempts to discredit us by those with much to lose, and a media environment that trades in baseless and binary framing makes that too easy.

Brands with aspirations of purpose take note: if you really want disruption to bring meaningful change, be prepared to defend the trust on which you may depend.”

The Power of Inspiration

Tim Hollingsworth is the Chief Executive of the British Paralympic Association and the National Paralympic Committee for the United Kingdom. He joined the organization in 2011 and, at that time, has also served as Secretary General for Paralympics GB at the London 2012, Sochi 2014, and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, and believes sport is also suffering trust issues.

“If there is a Trust Virus across society, then sport is one of several areas currently infected.  Whether it’s doping, false representation of injury or classification, betting on results or the perceived mistreatment of athletes, sport is currently under scrutiny.  The general public’s perception of their favourite athletes and teams are at risk of being tainted.

This can translate into commercial partnerships and traditional charitable activities.  Convincing funders that your environment and your ambition is genuine is a key responsibility of every sporting body, but especially so for one like the BPA with a charitable status.

On the other side of the coin, the partners we secure can equally open up organizations like the BPA to public cynicism. Do our sponsors choose to support not because they believe in our vision, but they calculate a worthy cause will provide a ‘token’ PR buffer from other, less popular sides of their activity? This is a significant backdrop against which to seek to engage in commercial partnerships and fundraising.  A real and meaningful attachment needs to be made if both partners are to restore public trust.

That is where I see hope, and the strength of our proposition.   I do think that the Paralympic movement offers a genuine demonstration of the power of inspiration in creating and maintaining trust.  Through our athletes and their incredible achievements, we are able to portray a ‘higher purpose’ – a focus on what is possible rather than what is not and a challenge to traditional perceptions of disability.  We can, in the words of our vision, ‘through sport, inspire a better world for disabled people.’ Corporate brands that can share in that inspiration can gain credibility from it because of the recognizable power it has, and good it can do.”

[Photo: Flickr user Thirdblade Photography]

“Hit and Run” Humanitarianism

Another expert in this field is Dr. Irene Bruna Seu, Reader in the Dept. of Psychosocial Studies at Birbeck, University of London, and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her comments are based on the findings from a four-year research project, discussed in Caring in Crisis which she co-authored with Shani Orgad, LSE.


“We found evidence of a deep crisis of trust between NGOs and their public. People distrust NGOs when they are perceived to operate as businesses, in competition with each other, and manipulating people to make them donate. Many felt that ‘all they want is my money.’ Most people, even those committed to humanitarianism, talked of NGOs constantly ‘hitting on the same note’ which causes saturation and a hardening of attitudes towards giving, and NGOs in general. People are angered by this approach and likened most NGOs to marketers (self-serving and manipulative), in contrast with their wished for model of NGOs as Good Samaritans (altruistic and good people).

Although monetary donations are essential in enabling NGOs to operate, they are often a form of fleeting participation. We found strong evidence of the negative ‘collateral damage’ from this transactional approach to engaging the public. We call it the ‘hit and run’ model of humanitarian communication; it presents the viewer with an emergency scenario, through emotionally charged images and contents, asking the viewer to donate money so that NGOs can respond to the emergency on their behalf.   Members of the public feel ‘hit’ emotionally and then disregarded, while NGOs deliver the help. In the short term this model works, in so far as it is a successful fundraising tool and, understandably, cash-deprived NGOs resort to it frequently. But it is counterproductive in terms of long-term public engagement. Participants commented that the ‘hit and run’ model enables people to disengage with a good conscience and doesn’t require commitment. Yet, when people talk about their model of caring for others, we found that it is relational rather than transactional, and based on commitment. People feel that the ‘hit and run’ transactional approach is dehumanizing for themselves (‘all they want is my money’) and for the beneficiaries.

The future for giving then is not money but connectedness. People want to connect to distant suffering in more meaningful ways, which they model on their everyday ways of caring. One participant talked of wanting to ‘give blood and tears,’ not money. This tells us that the British public are looking for symbolic, cognitive and emotional meaningfulness in their giving. On these, deeper public participation over time and meaningful connectedness to humanitarian issues can be built.”

[Photo: Flickr user Richard P J Lambert]

The CEO Crusaders

Finally, I spoke with Brunswick Group partner and author, Jon Miller, who works with companies from the U.S., Asia, and Africa to promote the positive contribution they can make in the world and helps them connect with a broader society.

“Today’s big businesses have got more to give than just money. A modern corporation is a vast concentration of skills, resources, and technical capabilities, with supply chains and distribution networks spanning the globe. They touch millions of people’s lives, through their products, and through the way they do business. It’s a bit bizarre, then, if all we expect from them is cash.

Businesses can play a real role in tackling some of the world’s toughest challenges–not just through philanthropy, but through the way they do business. Coca-Cola, for example, noticed that in Africa the very end of the distribution chain was made up of tiny shops or bike stalls that were run by women–and so they launched the ‘5 by 20’ program to empower 5 million female entrepreneurs by 2020. It’s win-win: the programme is lifting women out of poverty, whilst ensuring Coke has resilient distribution.

Some business leaders are even starting to sound like activists. Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal has become a crusader for global financial inclusion and Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of clothing retailer H&M, has become a something of a campaigner for a minimum wage in Bangladesh. As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has said, ‘building a mission and building a business go hand-in-hand.’ It’s all a far cry from the old days of corporate philanthropy, when it was enough to write cheques to good causes, and people talked of ‘giving back’ (an odd concept, when you think about it: what were you taking in the first place?). Leading companies getting smarter about how they can contribute to society, and how they can make real impact.”

It is essential that brands understand the cultural mindset and psychology of their customer, that for instance drove Britain to leave the European Union, and the U.S. to vote Trump, and how our clients might go about addressing the fallout from world events. In the face of uncertainty, we must do everything in our power to protect the practices of selfless concern for the well-being of others. We must nurture the belief that each and every one of us can make a difference, be it through giving money, holding up a sign, or even just holding a hand. The future of giving, in whatever capacity, has never been more fundamental to shaping a society we can be proud of today and tomorrow.

Jon Sharpe is the CEO of Y&R London.