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Customers Want Companies To Tackle Social Issues, New Reputation Survey Suggests

Harris Insights & Analytics released its 2019 Harris Poll Reputation Quotient (RQ), marking its 20th annual report measuring the 100 most visible companies nominated by consumers across 20 attributes.  The results speak to the growing role companies play in our social discourse, and America’s increasing desire for companies to take action on tackling social issues of the day.

Harris measured dimensions such as Trust, Culture, Ethics, Citizenship, Vision, Growth, and Products and Services. The top 10 companies overall for 2019 were:

  1. Wegman’s 82.97
  2. 82.27
  3. Patagonia 81.36
  4. L.L. Bean 80.70
  5. The Walt Disney Company 80.37
  6. Publix Supermarkets 80.29
  7. Samsung 80.00
  8. Procter & Gamble Co. 79.85
  9. Microsoft 79.71
  10. Sony 79.39

A few things immediately strike me upon review:

  • Amazon continues to win over consumers even as they flatten competitors, avoid corporate taxes, and collect colossal amounts of customer data in an environment increasingly attuned to personal data security. Amazon delivers unmatched customer value through their Products and Services, which seems to earn them a pass (for now).  It will be interesting to see, if and when, their reputation starts to falter.
  • Patagonia has climbed the list from #9 to #3 compared to last year’s results. The company’s continued focus on environmental conservation has accelerated awareness of their progressive policies and won them America’s top spot among lifestyle companies.  Patagonia publicly announced it will be donating its $10 million in corporate tax cuts to combat the climate crisis.
  • The inclusion of food retailers Wegmans and Publix, which won the #1 and #2 spots among all companies on measures specifically related to Ethics, underscores the role that supermarkets continue to have in nurturing people and the communities served.  Only Wegmans and Publix ranked in the top 10 among both Democrats and Republicans when examined separately. To date, Wegmans and Publix seem to be able to live in an apolitical world.

Outside of the top 10, there were notable movements for America’s favorite and least favorite companies.  Some movements represented predictable stumbles among scandal plagued companies, such as Tesla Motors (dropping from #3 to #42), Facebook (falling from #51 to #94) and Sears Holdings Corporation (continuing a painful decline from #88 to #97 this year).  Others were less straight-forward, with companies like Chick-fil-A declining from #4 to #22, Nike falling from #12 to #34, and Google down significantly from #28 to #41 on the list.

  • Nike’s controversial ad with Colin Kaepernick represented a measured play that catered to the values of their base and earned them a #2 spot among Millennials even when their ranking fell overall to #34 among the general public.
  • Chick-fil-A may be a victim of association with conservatism in the age of Trump.  Chick-fil-A claimed the #1 spot among only Republicans surveyed.  While Republicans rule the Oval Office, progressives seem to be more socially activated to seek companies whose values align with their own.  The Trump Organization ranked #98 in this year’s report, outranking only tobacco company Philip Morris and The U.S. Government (the surveys were fielded during the historic government shutdown).
  • Google retained a top 10 position only among Millennials in this year’s survey.  Could the tide finally be turning on the public’s perception of big tech?  Among all social issues probed, the top stated priority is the privacy of data.  Nearly 7 in 10 Americans reported that data privacy is very important to them personally, even outweighing access to healthcare in terms of importance.

Newcomers on the list this year included retailers Dick’s Sporting Goods and Ikea, which both received media attention for taking bold steps to address social issues. After the Parkland shooting, Dick’s announced tighter gun controls in its stores.  And during a year characterized by hurricane-driven flooding along the Eastern seaboard and record-setting wildfires up and down the country’s West Coast, Ikea announced its ambition to become people and planet positive by 2030.

I spoke to The Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema about the findings. John suggests that it may be time to stop focusing on the absolute rankings, pointing out that companies that play to their base, like Nike, are making a calculated gamble that the positives of impacting their core customer outweighs the negatives of turning off others. As John states, “positioning is all about choices”. He also shared some new insights on Gen Z which suggests that companies must pay even more attention to their ethical and social stances. I couldn’t agree more.

By Neil Stern

Neil Stern for Forbes


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