What do years of looking into the perceptions and personalities of South Africa’s biggest corporate brands teach you? For one thing, South Africans have a certain sentimentality for the companies closest to them. For another, those same customers are quick to hold brands to account. We asked Moshopyadi Hannah Heil a few questions about the local consumer landscape as depicted in the results of this year’s RepTrak™ survey.
How important is it to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to reputation?
The basic, straightforward answer is: it is absolutely vital. It’s vital to know what drives the reputation of the industry one is in, the country one is operating in, even the region. The reputation drivers that you need to spend more attention on are those that weigh more from the perspective of mission critical stakeholder groups, measure these.
Given that this research study focuses in the general public as a stakeholder group, it offers insights into what the South African general public considers the dimensions of prime relevance when rating these various industries. So, before delving into the various industry reputation drivers, it’s important again to emphasise that building a company’s specific reputation platform across dimensions is the key to achieving positive results in the reputation economy.
When this research study started 12 years ago, most companies that were measured were keen to be seen in the public media as having high scores. Of course it’s great to have a high score, but one must pay attention to which industry you’re operating in.
Just how concerned should we be about South Africa’s small decline in reputation in comparison with last year?
From our research over the years, it seems to us that the general trend is that reputations take quite a while to build, and, similarly, can take a fair while to be destroyed completely. Of course there is an impact, and a dent, and a decline. However, I think that we have learnt that the market can actually be very generous in giving companies and individuals a chance to produce corrective action. So the market can self-correct, and as I mentioned, in the global market there are many other variables that can counterbalance the effect of a declined reputation. I think that there’s much more space that companies have to respond accordingly, so that small decline can become not such a big issue.
The crux of the matter is, when you recognise a decline, what do you do about it? Do you want to cover, do you choose to pretend? Perhaps opt to save face, or do you come out recognising the opportunity to authentically say, “Indeed, I see the error of my ways”. You can communicate with the public about what you’re going to do that’s now going to be different, how you’re not going to fall into the same traps as you did in the past… That way, you can use the negative and turn it into a positive. So, I think that we shouldn’t be too concerned about that small decline — but we should be concerned if there is no corrective action.
Are local companies working against a negative consumer bias and misconceptions, or is this the result of genuine problems that need to be addressed?
In 2018, there are two significant movements: Mr Price had a significant rise, and Tiger Brands had a phenomenal drop. To zero in on Tiger Brands’ drop, you can see how problems of reputation in that one company pulled down the industry as a whole.
I don’t think it’s a bias, because “bias” suggests that it’s something unconscious and unsophisticated about the perception that the consumer might be holding. It’s important that we look at the realities when it comes to the challenges of context regarding how some companies have behaved. I think that the consumer is very consciously reprimanding corporations and saying, “we don’t appreciate it when you behave the way that you have”. Therefore, to that degree I do not believe that it’s a consumer bias — I feel that it’s fairly rational.
The retail sector is in first place in terms of industry reputation in South Africa. Why might this be?
Although this year the retail sector was first and that may have to do with Mr Price, it may well be that the outcome of this study emphasises that the closer the product or service to us, our person, our wellbeing, the more likely the general public will rate it highly. If I love peanut butter, I know I love peanut butter. It’s a very emotional thing. The retail sector and the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector, being very close to our emotions, tend to have this prime position that they’re contesting, as we’ve seen over the last three years.
Around January, Mr Price bounced back with a sales surge, outperforming other retailers and recording an 8.3% growth in sales. However, five months down the line, in June 2018, this reality seems to have altered — there’s a generous adjustment. The Annual RepTrak™ Study provides a picture of a slice in time: at a particular point during a certain number of days or weeks, we are busy collecting data, what may be happening in the market at that time, what may have preceded those weeks when we’re in the field … those sentiments are often still top of mind. As seeing from Mr Price’s own reporting, it’s interesting that in January there was a certain sense, we collected data, and just a couple of months later adjustments had to be conceded.
Were there any parts of this year’s results that were particularly surprising to you?
The 2018 results are actually quite surprising in terms of the diversity that we’re seeing in dimension rankings. In 2016 and 2017, it was a three-horse race. 2018’s leading brands are a far more diverse group than those who have held the top spots in previous years. In 2018, Clover is holding onto products and services, and nowhere else, which is intriguing to me: Let’s take Unilever and CocaCola to clarify, how each dimension is underpinned by attributes. When we speak about “leadership” for a company, the attributes that underpin that are the same, so that we’re comparing apples with apples, and in every category this is the case. When I look at Unilever, it’s featuring for the first time as a dimension leader, and it’s recognised in the leadership dimension, which is made up of four attributes: that the company is well-organised, that the company has a strong leader, that it has excellent managers, and that it has a clear vision. Coca-Cola has for three years held onto the position of a company perceived to have high performance prospects, from a dimension point of view. Financial performance entails the company being perceived to have good growth prospects, that it’s a profitable company, and that the financial results are pleasing. These results may well be premised on actual information that the respondents may be privy to or are aware of.