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Companies around the world are facing an “authenticity gap,” argues FleishmanHillard Global Intelligence in a recent report [pdf], as they fail to meet customer expectations in key areas that drive authenticity, such as value and customer care. Trouble is, companies are considered the least credible when they’re talking about those particular areas.

The CEO or the Employee?

Almost 80% of the 5,500 consumers surveyed across 5 countries (including 84% in the US) agree that the behaviors and integrity of the CEO reflect the behaviors and integrity of the company the CEO leads.

That makes the CEO an important barometer of company authenticity, but not its most credible source.

Instead, the employee is most trusted.

When sorting facts from fiction about a company (sometimes quite the task in the fake news era), 3 times more respondents to the survey said they find company employees credible than the companies’ leaders.

The only people trusted more than employees? Knowledgeable friends, family and colleagues.

These results bring to mind previous research released this year by Edelman, in which just 37% of general population respondents around the world said they find CEOs to be credible, an all-time low. That study also found peers and employees more trusted than senior executives and CEOs.

Employee advocacy programs – which have been getting marketing leaders’ attention in recent times – make a lot of sense in this light…

Does the Channel Matter?

The survey was fielded among “engaged consumers” – people who had recently taken actions such as searching for information about a company’s products or services, sharing information about companies, signed a petition, or other such activities. These people are more likely to shape expectations about a company.

Mainstream media channels tend to be more credible than social media for these “influencers.” The US has one of the highest rates of credibility assigned to social media, though – putting it on par with mainstream media channels. Then again, that’s not a huge prize, given the historically low level of trust displayed in the US mass media. Yet it does suggest that employee advocacy programs designed to use social media as a channel can have an impact in the US.

Customers: Take Care of Me First… But Don’t Forget About Society

FleishmanHillard determines in its report that about half (51%) of perceptions about companies are shaped by the 3 (of 9) authenticity drivers that are customer-focused.

It’s therefore critically important that companies: offer (or appear to offer) products and services that are better value; take better care of customers; and innovate new and better products and services.

The marketer has an expanding role in these areas, particularly the customer experience and innovation.

Societal outcomes are also important in driving beliefs about companies, though: people want to know that companies are taking better care of employees and the environment, and having an impact on communities. These are also key contributors to trust in companies, and are linked to perceptions of value. Indeed, more than 8 in 10 expect companies to be more transparent about the source of materials and manufacturing of their products, because they consider that to be part of the value of what they’re buying.

As for caring for employees – that’s not just about pay and perks. Some 81% feel that it’s also about how the company behaves on issues regarding inclusiveness and equality. Those happen to be issues that Americans actually want CEOs to speak about.

Data Points to Ponder

Here are a few more intriguing data points from the study.

  • About 6 in 10 consumers believe that companies are not taking data security threats seriously and are not investing enough in their IT to protect against breaches. This frustration can turn into boycotts, according to recent research.
  • At the same time, consumers can be forgiving in some areas: a majority (55%) expect innovative companies to make product or service mistakes because they are inventing something completely new.
  • Almost three-quarters expect companies to go beyond mandated regulations and actively work to solve societal issues.
  • Some 63% feel that when a government creates policies that support isolationism, global companies should take a lead in driving the interchange of ideas, products, and culture.

The full study is available here [pdf].

About the Data: The data is based on a study of almost 300 companies across more than 25 industries, conducted with almost 5,500 consumers in 5 countries (the US, Germany, China, UK and Canada). Full methodological details are available in the report.

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