Anjali Puri
Apr 11, 2014

The importance of being earnest: Building trust in emerging markets

What 'trust' means in emerging markets, and how to build it.

Anjali Puri
Anjali Puri

Big brands have taken a bit of a battering in the last few years, with a slew of corporate scandals—from financial services to healthcare to the public sector—leading to a crisis of trust in large organisations. 

While this is true across the world, trust in emerging markets means something very different compared to Europe and the US. And understanding this difference can yield valuable rewards to marketers who get it right.

Based on a meta-analysis of qualitative research across Asian markets, including China and India, and comparing with markets like the US, TNS has looked at some of the key considerations for big brands looking to build customer loyalty in emerging markets.    

The first thing to recognise is that the socio-cultural environment in many of these countries has not been conducive to a generation of trust. Many top the charts when it comes to public sector corruption, and the man on the street lives with the assumption that dishonesty in everyday life is almost to be expected. This feeling transfers itself onto brands and is often re-affirmed in experiences of sub-standard quality and lack of accountability.

Different definitions

In Western markets, trust in corporations is built on fair practices, transparency, and the wider social and environmental impact. In emerging markets, however, trust is much more about basic expectations: doing what you say you will do, delivering on promises and guaranteeing product and service quality.

Big is good

In stark contrast to the West, emerging market consumers are far more trusting of big corporations rather than of local or artisanal brands. Large multinational brands essentially mean consistent quality and better, more stringent standards. In the wake of the melamine scare in China, for example, consumers turned en masse to foreign brands of milk powder. Size itself is simply a heuristic for multiple underlying trust-building factors. These are critical to bear in mind when building brands in emerging markets: stability, solidity, authority and clear proof of performance.

So the question is, what do brands need to do to convey these characteristics?

  1. Be visible: High visibility is critical when giving an impression of accountability. Brands advertised on TV tend to be trusted far more than those advertised on the internet—even in a relatively more ‘digital’ market like China. Brand display at retail outlets in China is often supported by claims of “advertised on CCTV” (CCTV being the national, state-owned TV network).
  2. Find an ambassador: Credibility comes from above when power distance is high—from someone “bigger and better” who knows more than the man-on-the-street. This is seen in the way celebrity endorsements work in India and China. Domain expertise is not a criterion for source credibility. For example, a well-known senior police officer in India has endorsed detergent and skin care brands and Jackie Chan endorses more than 40 brands in China.
  3. Show your scale: Buying into size is the equivalent of aligning with the stronger side. People choosing telecom service providers will gravitate towards the network that is the largest in their city, with the assumption that they will have access to better technology. Bigger FMCG brands are better distributed and are therefore more easily available. Brands need to make their scale and size clear if they are to win over the hearts and minds of consumers.

Trust can be a huge differentiator in emerging markets and there are few brands that have managed to get it right. To address this deficit, brands need to make it clear that they can deliver on their basic promises—and that they have the scale and third party endorsement behind them. Investing in trust by delivering these foundations will yield rich returns.

Anjali Puri, head of centre of excellence, Global Qualitative Practice, TNS


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