Edelman’s Trust Barometer is a great resource for meta-level understanding of how people, especially the “mass people” (i.e. us) feel about things versus the “informed public” (i.e. the folks in on the game). They just issued an interim update to the annual study, and it’s intriguing, if not outright frightening.

The conundrum is revealed on Slide 28, on which it notes that a solid majority of people want CEOs to “take the lead on addressing the pandemic,” yet only 29% think they’re embracing that role (CEOs rank last out of seven contestants).

It gets particularly damning on Slide 31 when folks report that just over a third believe that CEOs “put people before profits.” 

Now contrast that with the many millions brands have spent communicating during the pandemic.

The content has been unavoidable, whether on television or social media. Some version of the “here’s how we’re helping people” story has played out across industries and geographies. It’s as if every marketer has looked at the same consumer and trend research and reached the same conclusion: Consumers want to hear feel-good stories so they will feel fondly for our brands, since nobody is thinking about buying anything.

What if they’re wrong? What if we don’t want to feel good?

Well, better put, what if “feeling good” means getting a better and more believable handle on what brands are doing to prepare for the “new normal” that is evolving out of the pandemic?

I’m all for purposeful acts of kindness, but how they hell are we going to buy and experience stuff in a few months, let alone in the future? It would be great if brands chose to tell us what’s going on but they’re not.

What if they don’t have a clue?

This is the frightening part because the Edelman research also suggests that without true business leadership, consumers will expect a greater role for government, and that can raise complexities on a bad day (such as the noted failures of central governments led by populists to step up to that responsibility) as well as good ones (once the pandemic is over, will consumers want the maintain a heavier involvement of government in their lives and, if not, how easy will it be to reduce it?).

Business communicators should rethink that feel good content they have in the pipeline for May onward. Caring isn’t a marketing program full of stock images of people and families, it’s a business strategy that requires thoughtful and honest transparency.

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