As the US grapples with a divided political climate and even what was intended to be heartwarming Super Bowl spot (Audi’s “Daughter” — more on that below) has become a hot button debate, a just-released Harris Poll — The Reputation of America’s 100 Most Visible Companies — reveals that Americans are expecting companies to take a stance. And they are viewing corporate reputation in relation to their expressed values.
“In such divided times, as companies scurry to figure out if and how to respond to the issues and commentary of the new administration, we find that corporate reputation perceptions can be just as polarizing,” said Wendy Salomon, VP reputation management and public affairs at The Harris Poll, in a press release. “Companies that have taken very public stands for their beliefs are rewarded by consumers of similar conservative or liberal views, but there is also clear risk among those who feel otherwise.”
For example, Republicans surveyed favor Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby as those companies have vocally shared their conservative beliefs, while Democrat respondents perceive Target’s reputation more positively. And millennials, who will represent 75% of the workforce by 202o, care strongly about what a brand’s values and what it stands for.
The Harris Poll Reputation Quotient (RQ) is the firm’s annual measure of the understanding of corporate reputation in America. Since 1999, it has quantified the reputation ratings for the 100 most visible companies in the US, as perceived by the general public.
Topline findings from the just-released study include:
- Amazon, Wells Fargo make RQ history: Wells Fargo, as a result of the fake accounts scandal, fell 20.6 points, surpassing Volkswagen’s 2016 decline (-20.5) as the largest drop in RQ’s 18-year history. Amazon, meanwhile, claimed the top spot for the second consecutive year and marked the ninth consecutive year the online retailer has ranked in the top 10, recording the highest rating (86.27) by any company during nearly two decades of RQ corporate reputation insights.
- “Vision and leadership are more important than ever, yet CEOs’ reputations failing”: Half of Americans rate the reputations of today’s corporate leaders and CEOs as “bad.” Only one-quarter of the public rates CEOs with “good” reputations; 26 percent are neutral. Americans cite trusted, ethical and accountable as the most important traits for CEOs, while it is less important for business leaders to be curious, visible, bold and risk takers.
- Tesla brand “unobtainable” for many, yet reputation is high: Tesla Motors makes its RQ and top 10 debut in No. 9 spot with an “excellent” reputation rating, despite the fact that many Americans may never purchase one of its cars—or even ride in one.
- Highly visible for “the wrong reasons”: Americans have a deeper knowledge of how companies behave, with those like Takata (massive airbag scandal) and Mylan (EpiPen pricing scandal) more visible due to reputational crises. This year’s marks the first time Takata and Mylan have appeared on the Most Visible Companies list, with ratings of “fair” for Mylan and “critical” for Takata.
- Most damaging scenarios to corporate reputation: The biggest risks to corporate reputation are intentional wrongdoing or illegal actions by corporate leaders (cited by 85% of respondents), lying or misinterpreting the facts about a product or service (83%) and intentional misuse of financial information for financial gain (82%). Other risks to reputation damage include security or data breaches (74%), unfair workplace conditions and culture (67%), workplace discrimination (65%), product recall due to contamination (65%) and poor leadership conduct (64%). When asked which company damaged their reputation the most this past year, the most frequently cited was Wells Fargo (23%), followed by Volkswagen (9%) and Samsung (5%).
Whatever the political leanings of the survey respondents, it’s clear that companies are subject to greater scrutiny by consumers, with a demand for transparency and being accountable. In just one example, Audi’s recent Super Bowl spot (“Daughter”) highlights the increasing corporate and consumer divide.
Narrated as a father’s letter to his daughter, the spot’s intent was a noble one — to show the German automaker is committed to gender equality in the workplace. After it ran, it was both praised and criticized—earning 58,140 likes and 70,367 thumbs down for the YouTube video.
While some were pleased to see a major brand stand up for diversity, the ad “drew attention to Audi’s own record on gender equality, which is mixed at best,” noted Forbes. “And it highlighted the perils that come with an attempt to hitch a corporate identity to a controversial social issue.
When it comes to the current political/social climate, “There is no middle right now,” Samantha Skey, President and CRO of SheKnows Media, told The Washington Post. “If you see a middle-of-the-road brand approaching this strategy, it is more risky. I don’t doubt that Audi did this with eyes wide open about who it was going to alienate and who it was going to ingratiate.”
The debate gets to the heart of the results in latest Harris corporate reputation poll.
“Values play a bigger role than ever before in corporate reputation, and the business significance of a company’s reputation has never been higher,” stated Mark J. Penn, president of The Stagwell Group LLC, owner of The Harris Poll, in the press release. “Consumers are keenly interested in how companies engage with the world, and that includes corporate ideals. As the red versus blue duel of politics impacts corporate reputation, we expect to see more alignment along party beliefs.”