Feature: Perception meets reality

With brewer SABMiller half-way through a global reputation initiative, Steve Smethurst asked four media monitors to assess the company's image.

It is all too common for media to describe a company's reputation as being ‘in tatters'. Starbucks, McDonald's, Cadbury, Thames Water and the Home Office are just some of the organisations to face such hyperbole this year. Even consumer favourite Apple has had its image tarnished, with an unimpressed Macworld recently reporting: ‘The number of flaws in the OSX operating system is leaving Apple's reputation [as a Windows alternative] in tatters.'

If PR is about maintaining reputations (ranked the most vital comms task when Bell Pottinger polled 14 chairmen and CEOs in 2004), then the monitoring of actual perceptions is crucial. And media monitoring firms are measuring reputation in increasingly sophisticated ways.

Case study: SABMiller
Brewer SABMiller - which operates in more than 40 countries - is a good example of a firm putting reputation management at the centre of strategy.

It has attempted to define the factors that drive its reputation from country to country. The aim is to focus  its communications on activity that favourably affects its reputation, and scale back comms that has little impact.

The project - badged Reputation Driver Analysis Report - spans El Salvador, Italy, Poland, Russia, Tanzania, the UK and the US. So far, the surprise finding has been that raising public awareness of the brewer's corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity and promoting responsible drinking have a negligible effect on reputation.

Leading the project is director of corporate affairs Sue Clark, who joined SABMiller in 2003. She teamed up with Toronto reputation consultancy Globescan to interview the brewer's senior country managers on the issue of reputation.

Meanwhile, the public, staff, supply chain partners, media, investors and regulators have all been
asked to rate the company's performance against nine ‘reputational drivers': leading player; quality products; economic contribution; fairly priced products; admired employer; trusted company; social investment; responsible consumption; and environmental management. ‘In developed markets, traditional literature would tell us that CSR and responsibility are important,' says Clark.

‘This is the case, but people expect us to be doing this. Something expected doesn't register if you try to shout about it: it's deemed to be "a given".'

Clark admits she was surprised by the results. ‘What we found from nearly all stakeholders in all markets was that being seen to be a leading player, andhaving high-quality, visible products and big brands, were the leading drivers of reputation. We found we can get too focused on CSR and customer satisfaction activity. This was particularly obvious in developing markets - it's something that we sometimes lose sight of.'

Clark also had another myth dispelled: that being a global operator has a negative effect: ‘The opposite of this sentiment was particularly found among staff and supply chain partners, who felt pride at belonging to a big international group. They had greater trust in a well-resourced global brand.'

Focused resources
Because the firm now uses its own methodology, Clark says she finds competitor analysis to be irrelevant.

Since the project was established last year, the brewer's comms teams in the US and Tanzania have focused on employee engagement. Elsewhere, in Poland and Russia, there has been a greater emphasis on CSR activity.

‘The project is giving us a common focal point so that we can engage and compare activities and align our
comms plans. It's also helped us to benchmark against affiliate firms in the SABMiller group,' says Clark.

The group is half-way through the reputation project. After its completion, Clark says the plan is to wait for three years and start again - so that changes in attitude can be tracked.

Clark insists that the company is aware of the difficulty of the challenge it has set itself. ‘Reputation is based on almost every interaction with the company: products, prices, financial performance, customer satisfaction and so on. That's why our way of looking at reputation is helpful - it recognises the scope, but prioritises particular issues. It shows us where we should be focusing our efforts.'

So, how do SABMiller's findings compare with those of professional monitoring companies? PRWeek asked four monitoring firms to assess the brewer's media reputation and advise on a best course of action (below).

PRECISE MEDIA GROUP

Keir Fawcus, managing director of Precise Media, undertook a ‘key messages analysis' of SABMiller's
media coverage between April and September from its Media Report service. It chose to look at elements including whether the firm was described as ‘well managed' and ‘successful', and as having good ‘employee attraction and retention'.

He says that of 191 articles that produced a match, the dominant message in 59 of them was that the company was either ‘well run', ‘leading' or ‘successful'. ‘The Daily Telegraph noted it as only one of 14 per cent of FTSE 100 companies with a marketer on the board. Thirty-one per cent of articles were deemed to be positive - double what we usually see,' he adds.

The majority of SABMiller coverage in newspapers was either business/corporate in tone, or concerned with its brands. ‘Of this, 52 per cent of coverage was neutral. Typically, clients would expect ten to 20 per cent of coverage to be categorised as positive, using this methodology, but SABMiller outperformed this significantly. Of the remainder, 13 per cent of coverage was negative, and four per cent was balanced,' says Fawcus.

Monitoring by Precise confirmed that SABMiller's comms strategy is working. The overwhelming theme of national coverage was SABMiller's status as a leading beverage provider. Between April and July, all messages about SABMiller in the press fell into the ‘leading player' and ‘trusted company' categories.

Of all the articles that carried a corporate theme, 92 per cent had a ‘leadership' angle.

Fawcus adds: ‘Furthermore, SABMiller is clearly perceived as a "trusted company" and a "leading player" in
the wider context of the FTSE 100. SABMiller also won positive comment for its recruitment policies and its board structure.'

Praised in Peru
Despite SABMiller's own admission that it plays down CSR-generated PR, Precise notes that it did find a lot of discussion - at least in the media - around SABMiller being a socially responsible company - and it was consistently viewed as a forerunner in its sector.

The Independent reported that SABMiller was supporting the local economy and community in Peru by investing £102m in the region around its brewing plant there, which ‘would include $12m for fridges, coolers and trade equipment to improve the accessibility of cold products to Peruvians'.

After being told that SABMiller sees CSR as less of a priority, Fawcus said he would still advise the company to not completely forget social responsibility.

‘Overall, SABMIller is performing well not just against beverage rivals in the UK, but also in the wider context of the FTSE 100,' concludes Fawcus. ‘This was achieved in the face of significant challenges such as anti-globalisation and journalists with gripes about "fat cat" salaries.'

LEXISNEXIS

LexisNexis - which pools business information and media analysis from more than 34,000 print, web and broadcast sources - analysed world-wide media coverage for SABMiller over the past 18 months, using its business and news service.

According to Alain Desmeir, spokesman for LexisNexis, this analysis identifies several trends in how the company is portrayed and what factors will affect its reputation.

‘The majority of the coverage we saw seemed to focus on the number of acquisitions undertaken by the brewer and in particular the expansion of SABMiller in the emerging economies of India and China,' says Desmeir.

‘Many of the articles specifically mentioned that while it is the second-biggest brewer globally, SABMiller
is the largest in China by sales. This is something we feel the company should definitely make more use of,'
he adds.

‘The analysis clearly presented SABMiller as an organisation to watch. There was consensus within business sections that the brewer is set for significant organic growth that will also reinvigorate personnel within its senior rankings.'

Like Precise, the LexisNexis monitoring also threw up some corporate social responsibility issues. An FT report in September 2005 mentioned its CSR approach in Uganda, while at the beginning of the year it also found spikes in coverage about its operations entering China and its environmental impact there.

LexisNexis's Market Impact tool can provide PROs with favourability tracking and identify emerging issues. Desmeir says: ‘Looking ahead, we would suggest that environmental and social concerns, such as reducing carbon emissions, will be issues that SABMiller needs to tackle.'

He adds: ‘Brewing is an energy-intensive industry. We also still think  that responsible drinking will be important. Our analysis shows a lot of debate in this area.'

INFONIC

Infonic specialises in ‘media-sentiment analysis': its automated system, InfonicNews, ‘reads' article feeds to assess whether they are positive, neutral or negative. It is also able to identify the ‘clusters' of events that drive the news and the most frequently quoted people. Human analysts then augment this process to add depth.

Infonic senior vice-president Saul Haydon Rowe chose to analyse six months of SABMiller coverage. Although SABMiller avoids it, Saul also looked at news from Anheuser-Busch and Heineken, based on real-time news feeds provided by VeriSign firm Moreover.

‘For SABMiller we chose to discount neutral articles in favour of those that were clearly positive or negative. We found that only a relatively small proportion of articles were truly sentiment-bearing,' says Haydon Rowe.

He adds: ‘Following good results and a series of encouraging deals in the first part of the year, the biggest spikes in positive press for SABMiller were driven by financial stories, including news of its acquisition of Foster's sub-continental brewing operations, and the premium beer distribution and sales deal signed for the Australian market with Coca-Cola Amatil.'

Infonic's analysis substantiates SABMiller's own finding that being seen as a ‘best employer' and a leading company are important reputational drivers: ‘Positives for the brewer include its status as "third-best employer" in South Africa - as decided in a recently published book by the Corporate Research Foundation, and reported in regional press,' says Haydon Rowe.

There was, however, a general decline in sympathy for the company (see graph, below). ‘We think this is due to a slight (but not overwhelming) increase in the frequency and scale of negative stories, combined with a drop in the frequency and scale of positive stories since SABMiller's strong first-quarterly results,' says Haydon Rowe. ‘This is a phenomenon tied to situations where firms trade with distinct corporate and product brands: the curve would be significantly flattened with the inclusion of ongoing product-focused publicity.'

Infonic found that Anheuser-Busch's coverage was even more dominated by financial stories than SABMiller's: there were no positive or negative spikes that did not relate to financial performance.

Heineken, meanwhile, presented an entirely different picture. As the company with arguably the largest public recognition of the three covered, its coverage was steady between the quarterly spikes that occur around results time. Haydon Rowe says: ‘In terms of content, the key difference from the other two brewers is in Heineken's sustained sports sponsorship coverage - particularly of the Rugby Union Heineken Cup, which delivers an ongoing stream of positive coverage. Whether this translates into improved reputation though is debatable.'

TNS MEDIA INTELLIGENCE

TNS Media Intelligence media evaluation manager Louise Cooke searched national and regional press. Like Infonic it found SABMiller coverage to be mostly corporate/financial-related - including speculation surrounding its takeover of Foster's, its financial prospects, and developments such as a chocolate lager set for a Christmas launch in the US.

Despite analysts noting declining beer sales in the US, most concluded the company was well placed for growth.

‘The company's reputation in terms of financial strength and vision seems to be impressive. We noted that in terms of other, more emotive, reputation drivers such as responsible drinking and CSR, SABMiller had a lower profile than other brewers,' says Cooke, reflecting the SABMiller strategy to downplay its activity in this area.

Cooke found that rival brewer Scottish & Newcastle gained far more national coverage around CSR, particularly in the Financial Times and Daily Mail. ‘S&N specifically voiced its concerns over irresponsible drinking habits being fuelled by supermarkets selling alcohol as cheaply as possible. SABMiller on the other hand was mentioned in The Scots­man as being opposed to discounting due to its effect on brand equities.'

Cooke notes that failing to speak out on irresponsible drinking could harm SABMiller in the future. ‘In September, The Scottish Executive announced its first formal partnership with industry and government to stem the tide of alcohol misuse in the country. Its partners were widely reported as being Diageo, InBev, The Scotch Whisky Association and Scottish & Newcastle - but not SABMiller. This partnership was an excellent opportunity for the brewers to promote responsible attitudes.'

Cooke says the brewer has also been silent on a major media and political issue: the environment. ‘Reputation analysis should involve competitor benchmarking because that's how consumers compare brands. The Independent investigated how the world's largest firms are planning to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses: SABMiller scored below average.'

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