The 20 Most ‘Authentic’ Brands in the US (and Why)


“Transparency” isn’t just a buzzword: as a 2013 survey by Cohn & Wolfe showed us, consumers around the world are demanding more in the way of honest communications from the brands they know and use every day.

The 2014 version of that survey, which the firm released this week, is larger and more all-encompassing. They keyword this time around: “authenticity.”

Here’s the big finding:

  • 87 percent of global consumers say it’s important for brands to “act with integrity at all times” while only 72 percent call innovation essential

Another key finding: product quality and the transparency surrounding it is the largest potential cause of crisis for a brand — and the public in general is NOT happy about data security.

After the jump, we list the 20 “most authentic” brands in the United States and ask Cohn Global Practice Leader of Corporate Affairs Geoff Beattie to tell us a bit more about the “why.”

First, the list in descending order:

1. Walmart

2. Starbucks

3. Amazon

4. Apple

5. Target

6. Google

7. McDonald’s

8. Chick-fil-A

9. Costco

10. Whole Foods Market

11. Publix Super Markets

12. Microsoft

13. Kroger

14. Hobby Lobby

15. Bank of America

16. Chase Bank

17. Safeway

18. Trader Joe’s

19. Wells Fargo

20. AT&T

Surprised? So were we. But, as Beattie explained, we really shouldn’t be.

How did you define the word “authenticity”  for this study?

One of the coolest parts of the study was that we agree that the definition is wide open. It’s one of those buzzwords we’ve been studying for three years, so we adopted a different approach: we asked people themselves how they define it (I was skeptical).

We got 12,000 definitions, and we were astonished because people had a clear idea of what the word means: a brand that has values and morals and stands by them no matter what while honestly divulging its practices (flaws and all).

In fact, the thing people most wanted was open and honest communications about products and services. And that finding was consistent around the world.

As a consumer, when I hear the word “authentic” I do not think of McDonalds. Why did these brands score so high?

McDonald’s wasn’t on top in any particular country, but they were mentioned so often that they were the number one brand worldwide. This seems surprising, but if you look at what they’ve done in this area, its quite impressive.

For example, they’ve made a huge effort following controversies about the materials used in their products and opened up about the quality and provenance of those ingredients. The behind-the-scenes “pink slime” video was very popular, and our research suggests these actions have had some impact on people.

McDonald’s was also the first chain to post calorie counts on all in-store menus, and for their most recent campaign they invited people around world to ask any question and answered them all.

In a more fundamental sense, authenticity is about delivering what you say you will deliver — and McDonald’s does that. The relationship with the consumer is very simple.

What about Samsung?

Two things: they deliver as promised and they have a transparent culture. The boss told the world that the company’s first tablet wasn’t good enough, and just last year they told investors that their mobile software wasn’t as good as their hardware.

On the CSR angle, their response to child labor allegations in China was an external audit which did find lots of violations. They are willing to face up to issues, and that comes through in the culture.

How much of the rankings was about popularity and awareness?

In our opinion, this was not a list of the most popular brands. Think about who’s missing: where’s GE? Where’s IBM?

How much did internal/external PR strategies have to do with these brands’ placements on the list?

In certain cases like McDonald’s, Samsung and Apple, the companies made a conscious decision to be more transparent on important topics.

Sometimes it’s about ingrown culture and sometimes it’s about the nature of the relationship with the consumer. That’s why supermarkets ranked so high (particularly in the UK and Germany, despite the fact that the country has many well-known brands like BMW). They are a very important part of people’s lives and the relationship is simple: you buy your groceries for the week and go home. Everyone knows what they’re getting.

Take the case of the alcohol industry (which collectively scored at the bottom of the list): they have challenges being honest with people about health effects of their products. It takes courage — and is the “drink responsibly” disclaimer REALLY addressing the issue?

global anger meter

You found that data security and privacy is one of the issues that most angers Americans…so why did Target, Chase and others appear in the top 20?

People have become much more aware of and sensitive to the idea that their data is being sold to other people, and some companies like Apple have dealt with it better than others.

But consumers don’t associate any one company with the issue of data privacy — they’re more generally aware. However, there’s not enough clarity in terms of explaining how it works and what the public gets out of the deal.

In tech, they say that companies need to start listening. The lesson is, if you have a data breach, don’t hide. Tell people right away and tell them you’re acting. At a certain point you can’t sit on information anymore, because someone will find out.

It’s the coverup that people don’t like.

What’s your general advice to brands looking to be more authentic?

Authenticity is the best defense in a crisis situation.

We’re advising everyone to go further and do an “authenticity audit”: for all information not in the public domain, ask yourself: what would happen if the info got out? Would we be damaged? If the answer is “yes,” then you need to do something now.

Be proactive, embrace it, and turn it to your advantage.

What do we think of Cohn & Wolfe’s findings?

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