Ipsos MORI Thinks

The drivers of trust in brands and government

GIDEON SKINNER Research Director

Long-term trends allow us to explore the deeper societal undercurrents in trust. But what is the current state of trust in public and private sector institutions? To test this, Ipsos has set up a Global Trustworthiness Monitor, consisting of around 18,000 online interviews in 23 countries worldwide, to measure current attitudes towards the trustworthiness of institutions, and to explore what might drive them.

The research is some of the first we know of to directly ask about ’trustworthiness’ rather than ’trust’, and the initial results are not encouraging. Of the eight institutions asked about – government, public services, the media, banks, technology, pharmaceutical, oil and gas and food and drink companies – none are seen as trustworthy by a majority around the world overall. Governments come out particularly badly, with most describing them as untrustworthy, but the media, banks and oil and gas companies are also all seen as more untrustworthy than trustworthy by a margin of 2:1. Only technology companies receive a clearly positive score, though for public services and food and drink companies the net balance is roughly equal. It is also notable that anywhere between 30%-45% on average give a neutral or ‘don’t know’ answer. This may be partly because of the focus on ‘trustworthiness’ rather than ‘trust’ – participants are being asked to make a judgement on whether or not the organisations deserve their trust, a harder question, and clearly many organisations are not giving enough information for the public to be able to judge that one way or the other.

Having said that, again we need to be wary of sweeping statements treating all countries and all institutions the same. In countries such as Britain, France, the US, Canada and Japan, for example, a clearly negative view of the government doesn’t stop people having a more positive view towards public services. But, on the other hand, emerging economies such as South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico tend to be much less trustful of both government and public services – perhaps reflecting relatively high levels of concern about corruption in many of those countries. European countries, meanwhile, are particularly suspicious of business.

What is important about this study, though, is that as well as measuring overall attitudes towards trustworthiness, it also measured some of the specific factors that are said to drive trustworthiness. By comparing people’s overall scores on trustworthiness with how they feel about particular attributes, can we discover what drives public attitudes towards trust? Based on examining the literature on trust, we asked participants about eight particular factors that might be associated with overall levels of trust, covering the three different types of trust – basic, active and interactive – identified earlier:

  1. Is the organisation good at what it does?
  2. Is it reliable/keeps its promises?
  3. Is it well led?
  4. Does it behave responsibly?
  5. Is it open and transparent about what it does?
  6. Does it do what it does with the best of intentions?
  7. Does it share your values?
  8. Would it try to take advantage of you if it could?

All eight sectors fared worst when the public were asked whether these organisations would be prepared to take advantage of them, were open and transparent, and shared their values. People were more positive, however, about their overall levels of competence. This suggests that there is a disconnect between individual and institution, driving suspicion. People see a lack of openness, and feel not only that they do not share the values of many of these bodies, but that these sectors cannot be trusted to not actively take advantage of the public for their own benefit.

Overall, people’s rankings of organisations on these factors were similar to the overall trustworthiness ratings, with government and media doing worst, and technology companies the best. This is of course reflecting perceptions rather than necessarily the truth: most civil servants and politicians do not go into government to deceive or thwart the public.

However, there were differences, which give some pointers about where the priorities should be for different sectors. Governments were rated especially badly, compared against the industry sectors, on competence, leadership, and reliability. Competence and perceived leadership were also issues for public services – but public services were the least likely to be accused of taking advantage of people. The opposite was true for banks, who received slightly above average scores for competence and leadership, but below average scores for having the best intentions, and for taking advantage of others if they could.

We also asked people what they felt was important in deciding whether or not to trust an organisation (whether it took advantage of you was not included). Across nearly every country, three factors stood out as most important: whether the organisation is reliable, whether it is open and transparent, and whether it behaves responsibly. This suggests that what people think they want to see is a mixture of traditional and newer factors. Reliability has been a staple part of many models of trust for some time, but this data also suggests that in today’s world, citizens and consumers want to see openness and transparency too. Having said that, nearly all the factors were picked out as important by at least one in five people globally, with competence standing out as notably important in Italy, France and Turkey. Leadership was seen as least important to trust, but was still not negligible, and especially so in China and Saudi Arabia.


We took our analysis a step further. As well as asking people what they thought was driving their trust in an organisation, we also carried out statistical analysis to uncover what factors really were associated with different levels of trust, holding everything else constant. The results might be surprising, and do not match up exactly with people’s stated beliefs.

First of all, this analysis found that all the eight factors were significant drivers of trust in their own right. This backs up the idea that ‘trustworthiness’ really is a complex, multi-faceted concept that cannot be easily reduced to a simple model of just one or two factors (and whilst our model was reasonably strong, with an r-squared coefficient of 0.39, it also suggests that there are other factors that will play a part that we weren’t able to cover). This means that there is no shortcut for organisations that are trying to build trust. As we would expect for such an all-encompassing idea, it is affected by every aspect of what an organisation may do: its core competence, its delivery of outcomes, its values and behaviours, its communications and openness, and its leadership.

It is also interesting to compare the relative order of the strength of these factors with people’s stated views. In both, reliability is clearly key, while the quality of leadership is less so (but leadership still makes a difference). But there are some differences in emphasis elsewhere. Notably, the importance of an organisation’s intentions, or integrity, is relatively more important in the statistical model, while core competence is relatively less so. Again, this doesn’t mean that being good at the basics isn’t important, just that when it comes to being trusted, what you set out to do is even more so. It also goes to show that people take into account selfish behaviours too. If they think an organisation is likely to actively seek to take advantage of them if they get the opportunity, that has a negative impact on trust.

Within this overall model, there are further subtle differences within country and within sector – again demonstrating that a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach to trust just doesn’t work. For example, there are several countries where simple competence does become relatively more important – such as Argentina, France, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Spain. Reliability and keeping promises is particularly important in Japan and South Korea. Sharing values has more of a relative impact in Germany and Sweden, while integrity is particularly powerful in the US. In the UK, trust is likely to fall if people think organisations are out to take advantage of them. There are also nuances by sector.

Setting out with good intentions is particularly important to trust ratings of government and public services, while the importance of leadership drops out of the model completely for the media, public services, pharmaceuticals, and food and drink companies. For banks, competence is also not in the model (perhaps because it is assumed to be there as a hygiene factor); instead, the top three are sharing values, reliability and being transparent. Reliability and competence are both important for technology companies, while responsible behaviour is most important for oil and gas and food and drink companies.

So what are the key conclusions from this first Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor?

  • Few people around the world think their governments, public services, media or many industrial sectors are trustworthy – with governments and the media particularly low down on the list.
  • Many are in a neutral position rather than being actively negative – if citizens and consumers can be engaged with on the issues that matter to them, improvement is possible.
  • Our model of the drivers of trust shows that there is no silver bullet to being seen as trustworthy, and no cutting corners. This is fitting for a concept as important as trust, and one that reaches into every aspect of an institution’s behaviour – if the answer was easy, it wouldn’t be as prized.
  • For the public themselves, they perceive the most important drivers of trustworthiness to be reliability, transparency and responsible behaviour.
  • All of this can vary by country and by sector – you need to have an understanding of your specific cultural and market context to succeed.

“Globally, scientists are seen as the most trustworthy profession, with 60% of people around the world trusting them. Politicians are seen as the least trustworthy, with two-thirds (67%) saying they are untrustworthyIV”

Trust: The Truth?

We decided to write this report because we wanted to test if the prevailing narrative matched the data. The ‘truth about trust’ is that trust is complex, and takes many forms (many of these forms are not in crisis or decline). Without some degree of trust society simply would not function…