Just how important is reputation for American corporations? In short, it’s everything — and increasingly so. While the overall perception of Corporate America remains relatively grim, there were mixed signals to be found in the results of the 2013 Harris Poll RQ Study which engages over 14,000 members of the general public to measure the reputations of the sixty most visible companies in the country.
Sixteen percent of the public said that the reputation of corporate America showed some improvement, 7 percent more than in 2012, while 49 percent said it declined, which was 11 percent less than those who felt this way last year. Only six companies achieved RQ scores of eighty and above, which signifies a great reputation, 25 percent fewer companies than in 2012 and nearly two-thirds less than just two years ago.
"The public seem to have become pragmatically realistic with their expectations of corporate America," says Robert Fronk, executive vice president of Reputation Management at Harris Interactive, in a news release, "and we characterize this year’s overall findings as the great muddling of corporate America."
Earning the highest reputation this year is Amazon.com, edging out last year’s most reputable company, Apple, which is ranked second. This is Amazon’s first time earning the top ranking, but the fifth consecutive year with a great reputation score. The Walt Disney Company, Google and Johnson & Johnson complete the top five. This is Google’s eight consecutive top-five appearance, an incredible achievement for a fourteen-year-old company.
AIG and Goldman Sachs return to the bottom two reputation positions on the list of the most visible companies, joined by Halliburton, American Airlines and Bank of America. With a full six point increase in RQ score though, Bank of America had the highest year-over-year increase in the 2013 study. Best Buy and Honda experienced the greatest decline in RQ scores, 6.76 and 4.73 points, respectively.
RQ measures six dimensions that comprise reputation and influence consumer behavior. The dimensions and the 2013 leaders are:
- Social Responsibility – Whole Foods
- Emotional Appeal – Amazon.com
- Financial Performance – Apple
- Products & Services – Amazon.com
- Vision & Leadership – Apple
- Workplace Environment – Google
Amazon’s reputation strength runs wide and deep as it ranked in the top five in five of the six dimensions of reputation. Amazon had a five-point advantage over any other company in the study in the dimension of Emotional Appeal, despite an entirely virtual relationship with the public. Amazon also achieved the top rating in the dimension of Products & Services.
Amazon earned nearly 100 percent positive ratings on all measures related to Trust. More than 50 percent of respondents also recall discussing Amazon with friends and family in the past year, and nearly 100 percent of these conversations were positive.
"Our results show that Amazon has managed to build an intimate relationship with the public without being perceived as intrusive," added Fronk. "And as the company that is so widely known for its personal recommendations, more than nine in ten members of the public would recommend Amazon to friends and family."
The results for Apple and Google are equally as impressive as those for Amazon and continue a compelling trend that has been developing for the past few years — companies that begin in the technology sector, which is by far and away the highest-rated industry when it comes to reputation, absorb the reputation equity from the industry, then transcend the industry to become a more multi-faceted business. Companies that are able to do this are perceived to "Play A Valuable Social Role," a characteristic, which according to the RQ study, has become a key driver of reputation.
By transcending beyond being thought of as tech companies, Amazon, Apple and Google earn high marks for the other drivers of great reputation as well; Trust, Admiration, Respect, Outperforming Their Competition, and Being A Great Company To Work For.
While still in negative territory, the banking industry showed some encouraging signs in 2013. Positive ratings of the industry are now 25 percent, a more than 50 percent increase from 2012. Wells Fargo became the first of the four big banking companies in the past four years to move from negative to positive equity in the dimension of Emotional Appeal. Harris’s fourteen years of conducting the RQ study show that a company cannot build or maintain positive reputation without this positive equity. Wells Fargo also received significantly higher marks on attributes related to its people and work environment, and it is possible that these may be the first signs of a bank once again being seen as trusted.
What can companies learn from the 2013 Harris Poll RQ Study?
Companies need to evaluate and understand the increasing importance that playing a valuable social role has on reputation, purchase consideration, advocacy and positive word of mouth. This is about a business having a purpose, not just checking the box on social responsibility or sustainability.
Additionally, companies need to adapt to a major trend in consumer behavior. More than 60 percent of consumers now "pro-actively try to learn more about how a company conducts itself" before they are willing to consider that company’s products or services. This group, which Harris calls Seekers:
- Proactively engage in conversations with others about what they find out about a company;
- In 60 percent of cases, decide NOT to do business with a company because of something they learn about that company; and
- Actively try to influence friends and family on whether to do business or not with a company based upon what they have learned about that company’s conduct.
In its 14th consecutive year, the annual RQ surveys more than 19,000 members (includes nomination and rating phases) of the American general public, utilizing its proprietary online panel. Respondents are first asked to identify the 60 most visible companies and then surveyed to rate these companies based on their reputation on 20 different attributes that comprise the RQ instrument. The attributes are then grouped into six different reputation dimensions: Emotional Appeal, Products & Services, Social Responsibility, Vision & Leadership, Workplace Environment, and Financial Performance. In addition to the twenty attributes, the study includes a number of reputation-related questions that help provide a comprehensive understanding of public perceptions. The 2013 Harris Poll RQ Study was conducted from November 13, 2012 to November 30, 2012.