Can the Fourth Industrial Revolution Kill Consumer Trust?

The trouble with buzzwords is they start becoming invisible to us. We read, hear and write them so frequently that our built-in filters lessen their impact. 4IR is one of these buzzwords. While many of the opportunities and threats it will create are still speculative, what we do know is the buzz has created fear of how the changes may impact us.

Fear and mistrust are interesting bedfellows, especially when we look at how consumers view organisations and the brands they represent. We’ve certainly seen enough examples over the last few years to understand why public fear and mistrust is on the rise. We only need to think of the multiple big brand data breaches making headlines or fake news stories becoming viral. And to the extreme, the cases responsible for loss of life, such as the recent airline disasters caused by malfunctioning aircraft. While some of these might be individual cases, they contribute to a growing mistrust that is largely hard to quantify.

The recently released data from Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, however, reveals some tangible metrics on trust, providing insight into what is keeping people awake at night. So, as we look to the future, the question is, how will 4IR influence a growing trend of mistrust?

Consider some of these take-outs from the 2019 survey: 

  • A massive 55% of respondents fear losing their jobs to automation or other forms of innovation;
  • 65% of people feel that tech companies have too much power over the news and information we see;
  • Trust in social media ranks lowest of all media platforms, at 43%;
  • 73% of people are worried about fake news being used as a weapon


“Organisations are being brought to book when they’ve fallen down in the eyes of the customer.”

That’s a concerning level of mistrust. But the good news is consumers aren’t taking any of this lying down. As social media has given ordinary citizens a voice and a platform, media consumption and engagement levels are on the up and in the process, organisations are being brought to book when they’ve fallen down in the eyes of the customer. Indeed, social shaming can literally garner millions of views overnight. Some of the Trust Barometer numbers around media consumption for 2019 show that:

  • Engagement with the news surged by 22 points from 2018;
  • 40% of respondents not only consume news once a week or more, but they routinely amplify it too – up from 26% in 2018

How to build trust capital

A key trend emerging from the Trust Barometer and by far the biggest earner of trust for the period surveyed, is the employer. The huge role the employer can play in terms of building loyalty amongst employees and creating true brand ambassadors and advocates in the process is quite compelling.

The trick, however, is that employees are demanding that their employers live by a clear-cut code of ethics. They want their company and CEO to take action on societal issues and to care about making a difference.


“Employees are demanding that their employers live by a clear-cut code of ethics.”

So, what does this mean for employers?

Well, firstly, it means that thoughtfully-designed internal communications and stakeholder relations have never been more important. To build trust capital, organisations also need to walk the talk. Morality needs to become part of the very fabric of an organisation, not an after-thought. As connected value creation becomes more of an expectation of business than a nice-to-have, people are demanding that their employers become the ultimate role models.


“Thoughtfully-designed internal communications and stakeholder relations have never been more important.”

In fact, respondents in the vast majority of countries agreed that ‘a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions of the communities where it operates’. The second biggest jump in the number of respondents that agreed with this statement compared with 2018, were South Africans, whose score increased by 17 points, taking the score to 82%.

As we grapple with the potential new risks the next wave of tech innovation will bring, society will need to carve out its indispensable value. This surely won’t be difficult. Machines can’t satisfy the growing demand for organisations across the board to take the moral high ground and for business to demonstrate true conscious capitalism. These require empathy and self-awareness. Buzzwords will come and go but these fundamental elements will ensure that trust can be earned when people and the organisations they’re part of, behave with integrity.


“Trust can be earned when people and the organisations they’re part of, behave with integrity.”

By Elizabeth Senger, Account Director at Atmosphere

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