The Companies You Keep

Consumers can tell a lot about what a company stands for aside from its corporate values. A new study by MS&L, conducted in partnership with GfK Roper, examines some of the corporate values consumers today find most important and the effects of such perceptions on maintaining long-term business.

The report, not yet published, polled 6,000 consumers worldwide in the U.S., U.K., France, Italy, Sweden and China on topics such as “what defines a leading company?” and how blogs, the Internet and the media influenced their perception of a company’s values. Among the key findings: Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe they can judge a company’s values by its online presence (versus 45 percent in the U.K.). Being financially successful and corporate responsibility are not mutually exclusive, and the “leading” companies are ones that are innovative, financially secure, ethical and possess the biggest market share.

The findings underscore the need for marketers to shift their business focus from being “driven by a coherent set of core values” to one that emphasizes how those “values [can] be communicated effectively at every touch point or companies risk undermining both their relationships with their customers and their long-term success,” said Mark Hass, CEO of MS&L Worldwide, a brand communications and consultancy network headquartered in New York.

The report found that consumers worldwide have an understanding of the concept “corporate values,” with 72 percent of U.S. respondents believing that companies can have values just like the public does. Moreover, in an increasingly virtual, e-commerce global age, those polled said they could tell just as much about a company by looking at its online presence (59 percent in the U.S., 52 percent in Sweden, 51 percent in China; 47 percent in France, 46 percent in Italy and 45 percent in the U.K.). Seventy-five percent of Americans said companies have both a “higher purpose” and want to be financially successful, with honesty being a core component of that success. Fifty-six percent of Americans said it is crucial for them to know about the values of the companies they do business with, while 33 percent said this was somewhat important.

Regarding financial success: “It’s a question I get from clients [all the time], and often, they’ll push back and say, ‘We’re in business to make money,'” Hass said. But the reality is, consumers “don’t expect a company to not make money by doing good as well, or by being attached to something more important than themselves.”

While price and quality may be the primary purchase influencers in tough times, in the long run, it’s values that matter the most. Seventy-seven percent of consumers in the U.S. said they either strongly agree or somewhat agreed with that statement.

Separately, the majority of consumers in the U.S., U.K., Sweden and France ranked a company’s handling of a crisis as the most telling sign of a corporation’s values. Such was the case with Ford, whose decision to opt out of the $13.4 billion bailout for the time being has earned it widespread industry and consumer support amid the near-collapse of auto rivals General Motors and Chrysler. “Crises are very much defining moments for a lot of organizations. If treated well, a company can really earn a lot of social equity out of a crisis by how it responds,” said Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch Spong, a public relations firm in Minneapolis.

Companies usually do one of two things in times of stress: “They are either going to truly demonstrate their values as an organization and pull themselves closer to their key stakeholders [such as employees], or, if they mishandle a crisis, they are going to alienate one or more of those stakeholders,” Spong said.