AMCI Global's latest Trusted Automotive Brand Study found that automakers' traditional focus on quality, satisfaction and elimination of problems does little to build customer trust in a brand.
Instead, according to the study, automotive brands need to focus on three pillars of trust -- competency, integrity and empathy.
"The focus on satisfaction and quality is all about making sure there are no negatives, and the industry has done a great job at this over the last couple of decades," said Ian Beavis, chief strategy officer of AMCI. "That's why satisfaction alone is not enough. It takes integrity and empathy to build the emotional bond of trust that leads to loyalty and advocacy."
Alfa Romeo, with a score of 51 on a 100-point scale, was consumers' most trusted luxury brand in 2019 because of its new business model that gives consumers control over the kind of experience they want, Beavis said.
The study found most of the luxury brands had significant improvement in the last year because they relied less on tactics that erode trust to stimulate sales. Tesla, BMW and Infiniti were the only luxury brands that received lower rankings in 2019.
AMCI said Tesla's lower ranking is evidence of the pressure consumers often experience when an automaker pushes volume over customer experience.
Meanwhile, Honda ranked highest among mass-market brands because of its concern shown for customers during the Takata airbag recall, AMCI said.
Hyundai and Mazda each recognized the influence that trust has over consumer behavior as well, which led to their improved rankings for 2019. Hyundai's Assurance program pushed the brand to fifth place, while Mazda's softer interactions made it the most improved brand in the overall industry, Beavis said.
He added: "In many instances, it's not what you do, it's how you do it that builds or erodes trust."
AMCI Global's third annual study was conducted in collaboration with C Space, a Boston marketing research firm, and surveyed 2,500 owners across 34 automotive brands. Those surveyed own a particular brand's vehicle or have owned one in the last five years. Participants that interacted with a brand's dealership were asked additional questions about their trust in that store.
AMCI said: "The industry has shown a slight improvement overall in Trust Index, but it should be noted that the median score is still 33 (up from about 28 in 2018) on a 100-point scale and all brands scored roughly between 20-50 points on the 100-point scale. The same can be said separately about both luxury brands and mass-market: Median is up a few points, but still a long way to go."