How Trust in the Food System and in Brands Builds Consumer Confidence in Credence Attributes: A Structural Equation Model
Given the credence nature of food quality and food safety attributes, consumers cannot easily verify whether food is high quality or is safe to eat, thus they rely on abstract systems of regulation and quality signals such as brands to make informed consumption choices. In fact, trust is recognized as a rational strategy that reduces consumers’ uncertainty when purchasing goods with credence attributes. While trust in food is a topical issue in an era of increasingly complex food systems, how trust and more precisely brand trust affects consumers’ perceptions of food is a relatively new research area in food economics. This thesis aims to answer questions such as what drives trust in the actors within the Canadian food system (i.e. government, farmers, food manufacturers, and food retailers) and in food brands, and the relationship between that trust and consumer confidence in food quality and food safety. Previous studies on institutional and system trust have been carried out primarily in the sociology, marketing and political sciences disciplines, while a few studies in food economics have investigated the influence of institutional trust and reported the degree of public trust in market actors. This study extends previous research on consumer trust in the context of food by developing a conceptual model in which trust in the food system and brand trust are expected to evolve to public confidence in credence attributes and lead to consumer commitment to food brands. Inspired from a comprehensive synthesis of the literature on consumer trust, the theoretical background suggests that consumer confidence in food attributes is jointly determined by trust in the food system (system-based trust) and brand trust (product-based trust), and it is moderated by consumer characteristics (personal-based trust) – namely: risk, past consumption experience and ethically-motivated behaviour. As well, consumers are assumed to perceive an actor or a brand as trustworthy through the influence of four postulated dimensions of trust: perceived competence, credibility, benevolence and reputation. A Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) approach is used for the empirical analysis. Data were gathered through an online survey of consumers conducted across Canada in July 2012 focusing on fresh chicken and packaged green salad products. The results show that individually none of the postulated antecedents of trust (i.e. competence, credibility, benevolence and reputation) was a significant driver for trust, especially for packaged salad. Unlike previous research on institutional trust and brand trust that uses a number of separate dimensions to measure trust predominantly in non-food contexts, this thesis finds that trust in the food system and food products could be measured differently by taking into account the interactive effects of perceived competence, credibility, reputation and benevolence on public trust. As such, the findings suggest that Canadian consumers tend to trust brands of chicken and packaged salad when these products are perceived as high quality, are backed by credible information, have a good reputation and, at the same time, enhance consumers’ welfare. In fact, a brand cannot be perceived as high quality and safe to eat (brand competence) without containing transparent information signalling its quality and safety (brand credibility). Additionally, results reveal some apparent product-specific effects: brand trust matters in fostering consumer confidence in chicken but not for salad. Furthermore, trust in the food system as a whole appears to be more influential in leading to public confidence in credence attributes than trust in food brands in the case of chicken. As such, it appears that trust in actors within the food supply chain is more important than relying on individual products. As well, the analysis shows that while psychographic variables (risk aversion, past consumption experience) and some demographics (e.g. gender, education) moderate the relationship between trust in the food system and brands for chicken, this is not the case for salad. In terms of marketing implications, the results suggest that while brands are useful signalling mechanisms, trust in these brands is not the main driver for consumer confidence in credence attributes. Furthermore, the much stronger effect of system trust implies that decision-makers would benefit by investing in building trust relationships with the public. Transparent communication and credible assurances about the practices and the intentions within the food system could be a way to gain and maintain public trust and, ultimately, consumer confidence in food quality and food safety.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
DepartmentBioresource Policy, Business and Economics
SupervisorHobbs, Jill E.
CommitteeNolan, James; Micheels, Eric T.; Hesseln, Hayley; Di Zhang, David; Grebitus, Carola
Copyright DateJuly 2014
Trust in the Food System, Brand trust, Consumer Confidence in Credence Attributes, Food quality, Food safety, Structural Equation Model