Look here, at this man holding a garden hose. His name is Nathan. He lives in Ontario. We promise, he's real.
That is basically the message of a recent ad campaign from Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. The retailer has been working hard this year to boost the profile of a testing program that sends products for review to roughly 15,000 consumers across Canada. Canadian Tire says it has vetted those testers to be sure they're well-positioned to review certain items, whether because of their jobs or their lifestyles or where in Canada they live.
The marketing push across social media and television especially – including its recent Father's Day ads – is an attempt to build awareness of a program among consumers who may glance at the company's red "tested for life in Canada" badges and assume that's just a slogan. Last year, just a quarter of Canadians surveyed were aware of the program.
But it's also a reflection of the fact that retailers are grappling with a growing problem of authenticity online.
"If your Uncle Bob recommends something, you've got that established trust. But how do we figure that out through an online source?" said Martin Pyle, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University who studies consumer decision-making online.
People are increasingly savvy to the unreliability of online reviews. It's easy to see why: Reviews can bear such powerful influence on people's purchasing decisions that there is an incentive to juice them. It's why businesses exist to sell fake reviews and glowing comments on social media. And it's why "astroturfing" – where employees or other stakeholders write reviews posing as impartial customers – is a problem.
And there are other conflicts of interest at play: The rise of "influencer marketing" means that bloggers, holders of popular accounts on Instagram and YouTube, and other digital celebrities are earning money to mention brands in their posts. It's an attempt to reach an elusive younger generation that spends more of its media time on digital platforms, and may be less likely to see traditional ads.
Regulators have specified that such "influencers" need to disclose any compensation – monetary or otherwise – that they receive to post about a product or brand. But enforcing those rules has proven difficult.
Consumer trust in influencers is falling: The least-trusted sources of information about products, brands or organizations are online ads, social-media posts by companies or organizations, and bloggers, according to a recent survey by Environics Communications.
Bloggers saw the biggest decline in trust in this year's survey compared with last, dipping to a lower level than traditional advertising. This presents a double bind for companies: Information they post themselves is rightly seen as biased, but information posted by others – even if they are not paid – is tainted by widespread doubt about the reliability of online sources.
"Customer reviews are one of the most valuable tools … for making informed purchase decisions and we work hard to make sure they are doing their job," Kaan Yalkin, spokesperson for Amazon.com Inc. in Canada, said in a statement. The e-commerce giant has instituted a "Verified Purchase" badge on reviews to show the company has checked that the reviewer actually bought the thing on Amazon, at a price available to most other customers. These are the majority of reviews posted each week, he added. Amazon also has a program similar to Canadian Tire's called Vine, which provides newer products for trial to vetted reviewers.
"When we launched this a few years ago, there was already starting to be a discussion about trust, on reviews," said Susan O'Brien, Canadian Tire senior vice-president of marketing. "We wanted this to be really authentic."
Even verified reviews, of course, aren't perfect. First, there is the fundamental problem of reciprocity: People getting free stuff may feel some obligation not to slam them for shoddy merchandise, even if that's an unconscious tendency. And not having paid for something means people are less likely to be truly upset if it doesn't work.
There is also a question of timing: Reviewers may give a thumbs-up to a product they're just testing out of the box, even if it breaks down within a couple of months. Canadian Tire tries to control for that last part by asking testers to use the product over a three- to four-week period, and asking detailed questions.
"The problem is, these companies are investing in [verified-review badges], but so far my research is showing that most of the time, shoppers don't even notice it, or are misinformed about what it actually means," said Prof. Pyle, who was contacted by Canadian Tire for input on the program, but does not have a paid relationship with the company. Companies such as Canadian Tire typically have pages on their websites explaining the programs. "The question is whether people will read that."
But broader advertising around the program has helped to increase customers' familiarity with it, according to the company's research.
"There are so many issues of trust in what's happening on the Internet. It's a competitive advantage to be trusted," Ms. O'Brien said.
For those who do understand the program, there are signs that it is having a real impact: In-store sales of products carrying the "tested" badge have increased 18 per cent so far this year compared with last, while sales of products not carrying the badge are up 0.4 per cent; online, shoppers click to view products carrying the badge three times as often as for products without, and "tested" products are ordered 2 1/2 times more than non-tested ones. The company is investing now not just in advertising, but expanding the program: by the end of this year it aims to have 7,000 products carrying a badge, up from 2,100 at the end of 2016.
In a fast-changing retail environment where giants such as Amazon are upending how business is done across multiple sectors, it's easy to see why companies have to fight so hard for digital relevance.
"Brick-and-mortar stores need to go beyond, and prove their worth to the consumer," Prof. Pyle said. "So things like this are highly important."