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Most business leaders are only now beginning to realize the true importance of trust. More than a mere sentiment, trust has economic value—and in the digital age, its relevance continues to grow. At the macro level, it enables new disruptive products, services, and strategic moves; at the micro level, it smooths the way for smaller transactions at scale among a vastly greater number of buyers and sellers who have no prior relationship. The business value of trustworthiness is not just monetary: trust is becoming increasingly important to a company’s success in recruiting talent; to its Net Promoter Score; to its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance; and to its very license to operate.

It’s no secret that shareholder sentiment is no longer the sole driver of a company’s business value. The views of many different stakeholders about a companies’ related practices and responses to specific issues are increasingly relevant. Hence, the ability to gauge stakeholder trust in near real-time can be enormously useful in an era when investors’ perceptions are no longer the predominant measure of business success.

This article highlights analyses that we conducted using BCG’s Trust Index to measure and decode stakeholders’ perceptions of the trustworthiness of more than 1,000 of the world’s largest companies. We contrast the most- and least-trusted companies, deconstructing the elements that shape stakeholder perceptions of trustworthiness and distilling from emerging patterns some valuable insights about the characteristics and practices that build and sustain or destroy trust.

What Is Trust, and Why Is It Hard to Measure?

In academic literature, trust is defined as the willingness of a party (the trustor) to be vulnerable to the actions of another party (the trustee). In a business context, broadly speaking, stakeholders (trustors) put a certain level of trust in a company (trustee) to fulfill a promise—whether that promise takes the form of a value proposition (product or service) to customers, an intangible such as corporate purpose to employees, earnings guidance to investors, or some other commitment. In doing so, stakeholders put themselves in a vulnerable position, trusting that the business will act in a way that aligns with their own interests. For example, you might trust your bank to safeguard your money, or your employer to live up to its societal aims, or your Tier 1 supplier to honor its pledge to reduce its carbon footprint.

As a latent psychological state and a predisposition to engage, trust is only indirectly measurable, through indicators such as transaction costs, or inferred from the attitudes and behaviors that people convey explicitly or implicitly in their communications and actions. Trust is naturally dynamic. It fluctuates, as individuals reevaluate their perceptions in response to new information and changing circumstances.

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