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Do we trust small businesses more than big ones?

Junior Copywriter Ellie Griffiths delves into the psychology behind the consumer and why we may trust smaller businesses more than big ones.

I bought some skincare products recently. (That’s the kind of news that’s big in lockdown – I told everyone I spoke to about it.) The brand I decided to buy from was Tropic, on the recommendation of Hannah, a Junior Account Manager at Six. I hadn’t heard of them before, but I decided to take the plunge and trust them. 

In the end, it wasn’t their products that won me over

My order was expensive, and I ummed and ahhed a little bit. I eventually decided to go for it, encouraged by the fact they make everything in the UK, build their entire ethos on sustainability, and never test on animals. But then I received a surprising email that moved me firmly from being a cautiously hopeful customer to an extremely satisfied one, before I even tried a single product.

The content was incredibly simple, just a big picture saying “Thank you” and a short, two-line message: “Every order we receive puts a smile on our face! Thank you for choosing premium, cruelty-free, freshly made beauty.”

Tropic's email to me came with a simple subject line: You've made our day!

In sending me that simple email, Tropic made me feel valued and excited to be a customer of their brand. 

But they also got me thinking – would I feel the same way about getting that kind of email from a bigger, more dominant brand like ASOS or, say, Apple? 

I spoke to some colleagues (including Hannah), and we agreed that it would feel insincere if a bigger brand sent an email like that. It was interesting to discover, since the mere exposure effect says we tend to like things more if we see them more – which gives bigger brands a hefty head start in the race for our trust.

So what is it about Tropic that made me trust that email was sincere?

he CEO of Edelman thinks trust comes down to two things: competence and ethics

Richard Edelman argues that the two main things we want from businesses are:

  1. To able to do what we need them to do, and do it well without causing us any hassle
  2. To be genuinely trying to do the right thing

Interestingly, in the analysis done for Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, not one group out of Government, Media, NGOs and Business managed to pull off both competence and ethics. Business was deemed competent but unethical, NGOs ethical but incompetent, and Media and Government both unethical and incompetent. Ouch.

I believe the reason I wouldn’t like a thank you email from a bigger brand than Tropic is rooted firmly in the latter camp: ethics. 

Ethics in business is big, but the way lots of big brands are tackling the issue isn’t sitting right 

It’s great that the ethics of brands are being put in the spotlight – but the truth is that some big businesses are papering over damaging business practices by making some sustainable changes and hoping nobody mentions the other stuff. 

Boohoo, for example, is proud to say their packaging is all recycled and recyclable – but if they’re selling a dress for as little as £5, the planet is suffering for it. L’Oréal says that they never test on animals, but they sell their products in China where they must by law be tested on animals before going onto shelves.

So, what’s a consumer to do? We don’t have time for in-depth research into every brand we buy from. Sometimes we just need it now.

Personally, when I’m pushed for time, I have two choices. I either close my eyes and click ‘Add to basket’ somewhere I know I can’t trust like Amazon, or I plump for a brand which feels instantly trustworthy. What I’ve come to realise is that the brands which pass this high-speed-trust test are almost always small businesses. 

And there’s a reason for that.

I don’t think the pillars for trust are ethics and competence – they’re ethics and humanity

With the greatest respect to Richard Edelman, I think competence matters less than it has in the past. We still want and expect competence, but smaller shops are usually just as good as big ones at e-commerce and sale these days, so it’s not as effective a differentiator anymore. 

I think the reason we trust small businesses more is because they feel more like people to us. 

As human beings, we tend to like and trust people we think are similar to us, and it’s a lot easier to think of a small business as a person like you than it is to think that way about a big brand manned by hundreds of people. 

When you shop with a small business, you feel like you’re interacting with a human. You know your purchase will have a measurable impact on them and won’t get lost in a sea of hundreds of thousands of others. You can more easily trust that they’re being honest when they tell you they want to do the right thing by their customers, their community and the planet – because they’re a person just like you.

Yes, it might not always be as convenient to shop with a small business. And yes, sometimes I have to opt for convenience over humanity. But given the chance, I will always choose the business I trust over the one that can get me a product cheaper and faster. 

This lack of trust in big businesses leaves a gap for smaller businesses to exploit

A survey in the USA found that 84% of people trust local businesses more than big, nationwide chains. That’s a staggering figure. 

Smaller businesses can capitalise on our lack of trust in big brands by offering a dedicated, thoughtful service that’s genuinely trying to do right by customers and the planet. No, you’re probably not going to grow to rival Amazon, but you’ll build a core of fiercely loyal customers who’ll recommend you far and wide and keep coming back for more.

If you run a small business and you want to build more trust, I’d recommend just being honest with people. Talk to them simply and don’t try to make anything too fancy or convoluted. Sell a good product, sell it responsibly, and really live by the principles you say matter to you. 

And then send me your website – I’d love to shop with you.

Here are some of my favourite smaller, UK-based businesses, if you’d like to try them out:


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