Brands tiptoe through today’s political minefields.

In 2017, not only is the United States politically divided into nearly equal camps, but it seems as though the gulf between the two sides is wider than it’s been in decades.

In my own personal experience, I haven’t witnessed political rifts this big since the anti-war era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  But even then, that divide wasn’t so much on partisan grounds as on philosophical ones.

[And it wasn’t an equal divide, either.  Remember President Richard Nixon’s slogan about the “silent majority”?  It was — to the tune of a 61% Nixon victory in the presidential election of 1972.]

Historically, the people who manage product brands have adhered to a formula similar to that of distant relatives getting together for a holiday meal: avoid talking about politics and religion.  But in times where politics can overtake even the best-curated brands, that’s become more difficult.

Recently, international market research firm Ipsos studied the issue. It tested a number of well-known brands that have been the subject of “political” controversies.  Considering one measure – stock price – Ipsos found that there has been minimal impact on brand health when looking at the publicly traded brands that President Donald Trump has mentioned in his various late-night tweets.

But viewed another way, Ipsos found that there’s an ever-expanding emphasis on partisan politics. Americans have become more likely to combine their behavior as consumers with their ideological or partisan loyalties.  One measure is the spike in searches on Google for the term “boycott,” as can be seen clearly in this chart:

According to Ipsos, politically-minded boycotts appear to be having noticeable business impacts. Looking at around 30 publicly traded brands, those with the highest rate of consumer boycotts since the November 2016 election are the ones that experienced the worst stock market performance – by a factor of about -15%.

Prudent advice would be for brands to respond to the hyper-partisan environment by trying not to be drawn into ideological debates. That’s a smart move, as most of the brands Ipsos tested have a fairly evenly balanced mix of self-described Democrats and Republicans.

In such an environment, no matter which way a company might be perceived to be moving “politically,” there will be a substantial portion of its customers who object.

And object they do: As part of its study, Ipsos surveyed consumers on their boycotting behaviors.  More than 25% of the survey respondents revealed that they have stopped using products or services from a company because of its perceived political leanings.  And as Ipsos has found, the brands with the highest rate of recent consumer boycott activity have also experienced the worst stock market performance.

Trying to avoid becoming part of today’s sometimes-toxic political environment isn’t always easy for brands to accomplish. Even for brands that make a concerted effort, it is increasingly hard to predict what factors might drive a company into the limelight — or whether anything the company does or doesn’t do can control what actually happens.

Ipsos cautions that staying on the political sidelines isn’t as easy as it has been in the past. It has determined that political party identification now ranks as one of the most central aspects of how consumers organize their lives – and how they relate to brands as well.

To illustrate, Ipsos presents the cases of Nordstrom and Uber. Both companies feature customer bases that skew somewhat more Democrat, but with significant percentages of Republicans as well.  Since the 2016 Presidential election, both companies have experienced politically-themed PR incidents that were magnified on social media platforms, to negative effect.

Different groups reacted in different ways – Republicans turned off by Nordstrom (dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line) and Democrats turned off by Uber (Travis Kalanick’s involvement with Donald Trump’s economic advisory council).

But the end result was the same:  the brands’ reputations suffered.

In today’s environment, it seems as though assiduously maintaining a non-partisan, non-confrontational stance is still the best policy for maintaining brand strength.  But it isn’t a guarantee anymore.

Additional findings and conclusion from the Ipsos evaluation can be found here.

Who are the World’s Most Reputable Companies in 2016?

I’ve blogged before about the international reputation of leading companies and brands as calculated by various survey firms such as Harris Interactive.

RI logoOne of these ratings studies is conducted by market research firm Reputation Institute, which collected nearly 250,000 ratings during the first quarter of 2016 from members of the public in 15 major countries throughout the world.

The nations included in the company reputation evaluation were the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil in the Americas … France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and Russia in Europe … India, China, South Korea and Japan in Asia … as well as Australia.

Approximately 200 leading companies were rated by respondents on a total of seven key dimensions of reputation, including:

  • Products and services
  • Innovation
  • Workplace
  • Governance
  • Citizenship
  • Leadership
  • Performance

In the 2016 evaluation, the top-rated companies scored “excellent” (a rating of 80 or higher on a 100-poinst scale) or “strong” (a rating of 70-79) in all seven reputation categories. 2016’s “Top 10” most reputable firms turned out to be these (ranked in order of their score):

#1 Rolex

#2 The Walt Disney Company

#3 Google

#4 BMW Group

#5 Daimler

#6 LEGO Group

#7 Microsoft

#8 Canon

#9 Sony

#10 Apple

Different companies scored highest on specific attributes, however:

  • Apple: #1 in Innovation and in Leadership
  • Google: #1 in Performance and in Workplace
  • Rolex: #1 in Products & Services
  • The Walt Disney Company: #1 in Citizenship and in Governance

VAt the other end of the scale, which company do you suppose was the one that suffered the worst year-over-year performance?

That dubious honor goes to Volkswagen.  In the wake of an emissions scandal affecting the brand internationally, VW’s reputation score plummeted nearly 14 points, which was enough to drop it out of the Top 100 brand listing altogether.

It’s quite a decline from the VW’s #14 position last year.

The complete list of this year’s Top 100 Reputable Companies can be accessed via this link. You may see some surprises …

Companies behaving (not quite so) badly: Financial services firms continue their slow reputation recovery.

Financial services industryBack in 2009, no industry in the United States took such reputation beating as the financial services segment.  And to find out how much, we needn’t look any further than Harris survey research.

The Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study of American consumers is conducted annually.  The most recent one, which was carried out during the 4th Quarter of 2014, encompassed more than 27,000 people who responded to online polling by Harris.

In the survey, companies are rated on their reputation across 20 different attributes that fall within the following six broad categories:

  • Products and services
  • Financial performance
  • Emotional appeal
  • Social responsibility
  • Workplace environment
  • Vision and leadership

Taken together, the ratings of each company result in calculating an overall reputation score, which the Harris researchers also aggregate to broader industry categories.

Most everyone will recall that in 2009, the U.S. was deep in a recession that had been brought about, at least in part, by problems in the real estate and financial services industry segments.

This was reflected in the sorry performance of financial services firms included in the Harris polling that year.

Back then, only 11% of the survey respondents felt that the financial services industry had a positive reputation.

So it’s safe to conclude that there was no place to go but “up” after that.  And where are we now?  The latest survey does show that the industry has rebounded.

In fact, now more than three times the percentage of people feel that the financial services industry has a positive reputation (35% today vs. 15% then).

But that’s still significantly below other industry segments in the Harris analysis, as we can see plainly here:

  • Technology: ~77% of respondents give positive reputation ratings
  • Consumer products: ~60% give positive reputation ratings
  • Manufacturing: ~54%
  • Telecom: ~53%
  • Automotive: ~46%
  • Energy: ~45%
  • Financial services: ~35%

So … it continues to be a slow slog back to respectability for firms in the financial services field.

Incidentally, within the financial services category, insurance companies tend to score better than commercial banks and investment companies when comparing the results of individual companies in the field.

USAA, Progressive, State Farm and Allstate all score above 70%, whereas Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, BofA and Goldman Sachs all score in the 60% percentile range or below.

Wendy Salomon, vice president of reputation management and public affairs for the Harris Poll, contends that financial services firms could be doing more to improve their reputations more quickly.  Here’s what she’s noted:

“Most financial companies have done a dismal job in recent years of connecting with customers and with the general public on what matters to them.  Yet there’s no reason Americans can’t feel as positively toward financial services firms as they do towards companies they hold in high esteem, such as Amazon or Samsung, which have excellent reputations because they consistently deliver what the general public cares about …  

[Individual] financial firms have a clear choice now:  Prioritize building their reputations and telling their stories, or let others continue to fill that void and remain lumped together with the rest of the industry.”

Here’s another bit of positive news for companies in the financial services field:  They’re no longer stuck in the basement when it comes to reputation.

That honor now goes to two sectors that are Exhibits A and B in the “corporate rogues’ gallery”:  tobacco companies and government.

Both of these choice sectors come in with positive reputation scores hovering around 10%.

I suspect that those two sectors are probably doomed to bounce along the bottom of the scale pretty much forever.

With tobacco, it’s because the product line is no noxious.

And with government?  Well … with the bureaucratic dynamics (stasis?) involved, does anyone actually believe that government can ever instill confidence and faith on the part of consumers?  Even governments’ own employees know better.

What are America’s “Most Influential” Brands?

Most influential brandsIn my most recent blog post, I reported on equity analysis firm 24/7 Wall Street and its take on the “most damaged” brands in the United States.

While there was pretty universal agreement among readers on most of the nine brands that had the dubious honor to make it on the list, there were several cases where some readers disagreed — Apple and J.P. Morgan Chase in particular.

Now, as an interesting comparative exercise looking at the other end of the scale, New York-based research company Ipsos MarketQuest polled Americans earlier this year on which brands they view as the “most influential” ones.

Of the 100 major brands included in the Ipsos survey and rated by respondents, here are the ten brands cited as most influential in the 2013 survey (in descending order of score):

  1. Google
  2. Amazon
  3. Apple
  4. Microsoft
  5. Facebook
  6. VISA
  7. Wal-Mart
  8. Yahoo!
  9. Proctor & Gamble
  10. eBay

Google leads the pack – and it’s hardly a surprise. But an important (and perhaps surprising) thing we notice is how pervasive technology, media and web-based brands are on the list.

Clearly, these are the types of companies that are increasingly influential in the lives of everyday Americans.

In fact, just three brands in the “Top 10 Most Influential” predate the personal computer era: VISA, Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble. And they rank relatively low on the list at #6, #7 and #9.

Moreover, let’s not forget that all three of these more “legacy-type” brands have actually been quite active in online and social media activities. Clearly, their senior management personnel realize that a good measure of future brand health lies in the same space where the other leading brands are active.

Apple: Brand Damage?Another interesting point that jumps out is when we compare the Ipsos “most influential” with the 24/7 Wall Street “most damaged” rankings. One brand stands out on both lists: Apple.

How can this be?

But on second thought, is it reall all so surprising? The 24/7 Wall Street inclusion was based on stock analysts’ reading of the company’s recent missteps and related share price declines … whereas the Ipsos list is based on the findings from a survey of “ordinary Americans.”

Applying the same comparative measures, I’m pretty sure the public’s view of General Motors stayed right up there long after the financial analysts had fled the stock and  relegated GM’s brand reputation to the basement.

But in the end, public opinion eventually followed the analysts, in part because GM’s efforts to turn around company performance proved spectacularly ineffective. It just took more time for that knowledge to seep into the collective consciousness.

For Apple, the big question is: Will its future actions mean that it stabilizes its brand reputation? Or, will its effort fall short, leading to a loss of consumer confidence?

Let’s check in again after 18-24 months and find out.

Taking Stock of America’s “Most Damaged Brands”

Damaged BrandsIf you were to ask people to identify the brands that they view in negative terms, chances each one would readily name at least one.

The reasons why a brand loses its reputation can be varied: a botched product introduction … bad corporate leadership … a poor response to a crisis.

But the net effect is usually the same: The damage takes only a short time to occur, and it can take years for the brand to recover (if ever).

Which brands are viewed as the “most damaged” in the United States right now? Recently, the staff at equity analysis firm 24/7 Wall Street put their collective heads together and came up with a group of nine brands that they feel qualify for the dubious “top honors.” They are:

  • Apple
  • Best Buy
  • Blackberry/Research in Motion
  • Boeing
  • Groupon
  • Hyundai
  • JCPenney
  • J.P. Morgan Chase
  • Martha Stewart

I find this list pretty much spot on. Most of them would probably be on anyone’s list:

Best Buy logoBest Buy – Its big box stores function well as a place to “showroom” appliances and electronics for consumers … who then head home to purchase the same products online at lower prices.

Blackberry / Research in Motion logoBlackberry Speaking personally as an owner of a Blackberry smartphone, is there any brand whose products have been more disappointing to its loyal users than this one? I doubt it.

Boeing logoBoeing – The highly touted Dreamliner 787 passenger jet has been delayed for years. Many consumers appear to be nervous about the model’s design, and recent developments portend … more delays.

Groupon logoGroupon Groupon’s place in business history may be as the ultimate example of a dotcom-era “glorious failure.” Its business model, wherein merchants sign up for a scheme that’s guaranteed to lose them money, had to be “too bad to be true.”

JCPenney logoJCPenney I’ve blogged before about the predicament of this department store brand. In a stunning series of missteps, attempting to attract a completely different demographic of shopper while simultaneously dissing its loyal customer base turned out to be a sure recipe for damaging the Penneys brand – possibly irreparably. The odds are better than 50/50 that this store chain will now follow Montgomery Wards into retail oblivion.

Martha Stewart logoMartha Stewart Take an iconic business celebrity and send her to prison for insider trading. Meanwhile, her lifestyle media company is hammered by social media (Pinterest and all the rest), while television programming is splintering into more and more micro-segments thanks to the Internet and an explosion of new programming options for viewers. Is this brand even relevant anymore?

The remaining brands – Apple, Hyundai, J.P. Morgan – are ones that I feel have more inherent strengths and should be able to bounce back from recent setbacks.  Provided, of course, that they make all the right moves and avoid any new pitfalls.

What are your thoughts? Would you nominate any other “damaged” brands for inclusion on the 24/7 Wall Street list? (I thought of Sears for one …)  Feel free to share your thoughts here.