Why are Woolworths and Coles Australia’s most trusted brands?

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Source: Pexels/Anna Shvets

Woolworths and Coles are officially Australia’s most trusted brands, according to the latest Roy Morgan Risk Report released this week.

While the news might not come as much of a surprise for the millions of Australians who shop at these supermarkets on a weekly or even daily basis, it’s still useful to ask ourselves: why are supermarkets so highly trusted? And what can we do to emulate their success within our own brands? 

Toilet tissues and issues

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia was plunged into a panic buying frenzy and experienced the very primal desire to get our hands on toilet paper, flour, pasta, bleach, and rice. No one could have predicted the overwhelming demand for the most simple items, not least the supermarkets themselves. 

Nevertheless, supermarkets across the country were forced to act quickly, calmly and efficiently to work through the crisis. In response to the growing outbreak, the supermarkets decided to come together in a communications campaign like no other. Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA told the Australian public they were “working together to provide for all Australians”, and urged shoppers to treat supermarket workers with respect. 

Their communications efforts were clear and informative. If an item was out of stock, in-store labels would explain why. Item restrictions were put in place, and checkout machines were updated to reflect the ever-changing list of limited products. TV interviews were conducted in high-vis vests from a warehouse stocking toilet paper, and interviews were held in front of a busy supermarket. 

Over a year later, and the supermarkets’ calm, considered, consistent communications strategy has translated into high levels of consumer trust. The takeaway for brands? Trust is built over the long term, and how you respond in a crisis will be remembered for a long time to come — whether that’s good or bad. 

Tackling controversy with vulnerability 

Being the most trusted brands in Australia doesn’t mean the supermarkets are without fault. Let’s cast our minds back to the furore around the price of milk back in 2019, when consumers started to feel passionate on behalf of farmers and their own back pocket. How did the supermarkets tackle this issue, and many like it, to remain the most trusted brands?

The key is vulnerability. The supermarkets have learned how to tap into a very specific emotional response associated with protecting their customers in vulnerable moments. In recent times, customers have certainty that they can go to their local supermarkets and get the formula they need for their baby, and toilet paper for their family. 

Because the supermarkets can tap into those feelings of anxiety and vulnerability by consistently meeting that need (most of the time, anyway), we build a strong emotional connection with that brand. 

If retailers can tap into a similar area of vulnerability, then they’re well on track to become a loyal, trusted brand. For example, retailers could help offer a solution to vulnerabilities around skin issues, wellbeing, wanting an impressive home, or healthy eating. Whatever the product is, if a brand can tap into those emotional vulnerabilities, then they’ll be well on their way to success.

Responding with empathy

Empathy was a critical component of the supermarkets’ success during the pandemic, as Coles chief marketing officer Lisa Ronson explained during a Mumbrella webinar, moderated by yours truly: “It was really about understanding on a day by day, or even sometimes hourly by hourly basis, how our customers were feeling,” Lisa said. 

The lesson here is clear: empathy builds trust. In order to get there, be relatable and speak your customer’s language. Work hard to mirror how people are feeling, demonstrate empathy, and never disregard your customer’s concerns.

It’s important to remember that empathy and transparency go hand in hand. If you’re not honest, your customers will smell the deception a mile away. Even if you can’t answer every single one of your customer’s questions right away, you at least need to make it clear that you’re trying your very best to respond to them as thoroughly as possible. Silence is rarely the best option, especially in a pandemic. 

Sticking to your values

In order to build long-term trust, retailers must ensure values are clearly articulated across their messaging and branding, and act in ways that are consistent with these values. Coles and Woolworths are a long-standing presence in Australians’ lives, and the values of both supermarkets are clear and make sense for their brands. 

As outlined on its website, Coles’ vision is to “become the most trusted retailer in Australia and grow long-term shareholder value”. It continues: “Becoming the most trusted retailer in Australia means we are reliable and responsible, and delivering on our purpose.” 

For Woolworths, the brand’s values are listed as: “Unwavering dedication. We are on a mission to deliver the best in convenience, value and quality for our customers. 3,000 stores and counting. We employ over 200,000 team members who serve over 29 million customers across our brands every week. Home-grown and proud. We are a trusted business partner to thousands of local farmers and manufacturers.”

Both supermarkets place an emphasis on reliability, value, and long-term thinking. They appear to live these values authentically, and as a result, the general public trusts them almost unconditionally. 

The lesson for those aspiring for similar levels of trust? Your values should be clear everywhere from your in-store retail customer experience to your online store, all the way through to your marketing and communication. Every staff member should live and breathe the brand and its values and should be hired with those values in mind. 

Brand values are a long-term commitment, as Coles and Woolworths have demonstrated. Retailers should only change their values if there’s something horribly wrong with them, and you have a serious reason for doing so. Altering your brand values should never be taken lightly, as it sees you starting so much from scratch, including brand recognition and customer affiliation.

If you can choose your values well and stick to them, add a healthy dose of empathy and clear communications into the mix, you’ve got a great recipe for building a trusted, long-term brand that can weather any storm — even a global pandemic. 

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