Trust in grocery, food brands held steady or increased in 2020: Study

Trust scores for packaged goods giants including General Mills and Kellogg’s also increased
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Shutterstock/Olivier Le Moal

Food and grocery brands occupy four of the top 10 spots in the annual Gustavson Brand Trust Index, following a tumultuous year in which big brands “lost their edge,” according to study authors.

President’s Choice moved up 10 places to fourth overall in this year’s ranking of 391 national brands—the highest of any brand in the food/grocery sector—while Costco Canada slipped three places to sixth. PepsiCo’s Quaker Oaks brand shot up to seventh from 23rd in the 2020 study, while Lactalis Canada (formerly Parmalat) moved into the top 10 after placing 70th last year.

In individual categories, Costco had the highest trust score in the grocery store segment; Canada Dry came out atop the beverage category; Lactalis led the dairy products and alternatives category; Lindt topped the confectionary/snack foods category and Kicking Horse Coffee and DavidsTea led the coffee/tea category.

It was also a good year for packaged foods brands. Top 10 brands President’s Choice and Quaker Oats increased their trust scores by eight and six points respectively, while the trust score for Kellogg’s jumped by 11 points. Trust in brands including Schneiders, Stouffer’s, Wonder Bread, Dempster’s, Kraft Foods, Maple Leaf Foods and McCain Foods also increased.

Saul Klein, dean of the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business, says the brands’ longevity, coupled with an ability to offer their customers “comfort and reassurance,” was a large factor in their increased scores. “Brands that are well-established, low-risk brands that reinforce our sense of comfort and security did well,” he says.

The fact that Canadians have had little to do in the past year but eat and drink “for sure” contributed to increased trust scores for brands of that nature, he adds. “My hypothesis is that it’s all about comfort.”

Klein says Canada’s leading grocery brands were generally consistent in their trust scores, though there were dips in recommendation scores for many major retailers. “It’s a bit puzzling, because we don’t see any significant drops in trust, but there is that drop,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve seen across the board, so there’s something about grocery where recommendations are going down a little bit.”

And while grocery brands were mostly consistent in their year-over-year trust performance, there were two notable exceptions: Walmart and Whole Foods. Both brands saw their trust scores fall, with Klein attributing the drops to different reasons.

Walmart has traditionally done “fairly poorly” on the study’s value-based measures, such as treating employees well and caring for society and the environment. “What we think is going on is that during the pandemic, those kinds of social issues became much more important in consumers’ mind and that was driving down their overall trust and word of mouth,” says Klein. 

In an email to Canadian Grocer, Walmart Canada said it had invested "hundreds of millions of dollars to both recognize and support" it's employees during the pandemic. The retailer has offered its associates access to such resources as free tele-health services and wellbeing programs that offer advice on how to eat healthy and reduce stress. Employees have also been given an additional "Me" day off that can be used however they please.

Klein theorizes the Whole Foods drop is related to its takeover by Amazon—which is experiencing what he characterizes as a “very steady decline” in trust even as people use it more—as well as some negative media attention related to its disciplining of U.S. employees wearing Black Lives Matter masks last year.

In Canada, meanwhile, Whole Foods also received negative attention for a decision to ban employees from wearing Remembrance Day poppies. “Ironically for a brand that’s trying to portray itself as much more progressive, and performs well on value-based measures overall, that’s pulling them down,” says Klein.

Over the past year, Canadians have shown an “acute awareness” of whether a brand is truly compassionate in its activities, and whether its acts of compassion are simply opportunistic, says the study.

The study is based on online interviews conducted by AskingCanadians with 8,975 Canadians 18+ between Jan. 13 and Feb. 8. The index is scored from a theoretical--100 to +100 points—where the former would mean total distrust (no respondents trust the brand at all) and the latter means total trust.

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