Advertisements have less of an impact on corporate reputation than social media or news stories, according to previously unreleased statistics from the 2012 edition of the Harris Interactive Reputational Quotient study.
Harris Interactive, working with Gibbs & Soell, asked consumers about companies with “good,” “excellent,” or “rehabilitating” reputations late last year, examining their recall of company websites, media mentions, social media, word of mouth, and advertisements over the last year.
The firm found that advertising did not shift consumers' perceptions of companies by itself, notes Robert Fronk, EVP at Harris Interactive.
“Those who recalled advertising this year don't see the companies any more positively than those who don't recall advertising,” he says. “Media recall is playing a dominant role on impact of reputation both good and bad, so the communications world is having a tremendous influence over how people see companies.”
The survey, which polled more than 17,000 people online in December between the ages of 18 and 65, found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents remember seeing an ad in the past year for 60 companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, and Amazon.com. Fewer respondents recalled reading a blog post (6%), news in print (40%), and hearing word of mouth about a company (40%).
Fronk adds that more consumers recalled Johnson & Johnson's advertising positively than negatively in 2011, but that number dropped from prior years. While about half of consumers saw the company positively in terms of social media recall in last year's study, significantly more respondents view it negatively this year, indicating that what consumers read online about the company is largely negative, he says.
Steve Cody, managing partner at Peppercom, says the value of editorial, social media, and word-of-mouth content is greater than advertising because it gives consumers a more objective look at a company from a trusted source.
“Advertising is always going to play a role for awareness, but its days of also building reputation are not only gone, they'll never come back,” he says.
In terms of sincerity, Apple, UPS, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods were the highest rated. Ford Motor Company, Amazon.com, Kohl's, The Walt Disney Company, and Home Depot rounded out the top 10.
The study also revealed that consumers most often identify a brand's corporate reputation with sincerity, although many find transparency by brands lacking. For instance, Apple received an 83% sincerity rating in the survey, the highest of any brand, and it was ranked No. 1 in transparency, but only by 55% of respondents.
Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, says it was important for Apple's reputation for the company to allow reporters to recently enter its widely criticized Foxconn manufacturing facilities in China.
“With a company like Apple, if there is a photo, video, or tweet that is leaked, you're at risk when you have an environment where you say everything in your facility is confidential,” explains Paul. “There is no confidentially any more; privacy is dead.”
Steve Halsey, SVP at Gibbs & Soell, notes that the results of the study, especially regarding sincerity and transparency, indicate the PR industry needs to better communicate the values and stories of brands.
“Content and context really do matter,” said Halsey. “Reputation is earned day in and day out, not just through a single point in time or a flashy campaign.”
Ford Motor Company was ranked No. 6 in terms of sincerity at 74% and No. 2 in transparency at 49%. Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, says the company's priorities in the social media space “come down to humanization and providing value.” He notes that Ford has employees interacting with consumers through social channels, like Facebook and Twitter, daily.
Kraft Foods was ranked No. 5 in terms of sincerity at 75%, but it didn't make the top 10 in terms of transparency. Mike Mitchell, VP of corporate external communications at Kraft, notes that although no company wants to “lead with their bad foot” in PR, it's necessary to be honest with consumers and report on a company's goals and progress.
“We try very hard to speak to our audiences, whether through a press release or a post on a website or Facebook page, and to be clear, truthful, and engaging,” he explains.
Ben Deutsch, VP of corporate communications at Coca-Cola, adds that advertising is a very important tool for bolstering important corporate messages.
“I think it's very important if you're trying to reach a broad audience, get a message out, and amplify it, to do that with advertising,” Deutsch explains.
Apple, Sears, Bank of America, and News Corp. didn't respond to calls or emails seeking comment.