Confused corporate signals undercut the image

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BLUE-CHIP companies that spend millions on above-the-line advertising may be frittering away the effect of that spending through a lack of consistency in other communications.

A survey by Dragon International, the marketing consultancy, reveals a tenuous grasp of corporate reputation management by some of our biggest and most respected companies.

The study follows an inquiry by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, which last year urged British companies to take a consistent approach in the messages they put out. Keith Wells, Dragon's senior consultant, said some of the 21 companies targeted were excellent throughout, such as Cadbury Schweppes, Shell and Marks and Spencer, but he said others had "lost the plot".

Dragon wrote to companies under six different guises: a customer asking about complaints procedure, a potential investor, a customer questioning environmental policy, a charity asking for details on the policy behind company donations, a potential graduate recruit, and a mother wanting information for her child's school project.

The responses were markedagainst criteria that included "accuracy" in replying to what was asked for, and "fullness", which measured whether more than a minimum was done.

Among poor responses was a Guinness reply to a potential graduate employee. It took three months, and was incomplete.

Sainsbury was "pretty patchy" in its answers, sending no reply to the environmental inquiry, while Tesco's replies were "average to grim" across the board, Mr Wells said. "In some instances the Tesco response looked like the Tesco we remember from 20 years ago, not the one we know today."

Heinz failed to live up to its brand leader reputation in the survey, according to Dragon, and fell down particularly on family values. It ignored the "mother's" request. The financial services group, HSBC, also failed to shine, with no response to the mother or the potential employee. BP sent no reply to the request for information about its complaints procedure.

Marks and Spencer and Boots were both consistently good and BT surprised with the high standard of its responses.

The findings may have something to do with the fact that Dragon specialises in corporate reputation management, but they do seem to point to a genuine inconsistency in the public face companies present when dealing with different groups.

More and more companies are looking to build one-to-one, direct relationships with their consumers as media fragmentation and costs - and in the case of food and drink manufacturers, the retailers - make it harder for them to reach the audience they want, on their own terms. Yet for such a plan to work, there must at the very least be consistency in communications across all stakeholder groups.

"If you want to be industry leader, then everything you put out must look like it comes from a company with that reputation," Mr Wells said.

So how do the companies surveyed answer the criticism?

Guinness said its recruitment is based on a September intake and letters received afterward are held over to the New Year.

Heinz stressed its commitment to "timely and accurate" responses to all inquiries, and pointed to its move into direct marketing in developing relationships with consumers. HSBC claimed to take its communications with the outside world very seriously. As a measure of that, it said, its chairman replies personally to all letters.

BP admitted it had "a way to go", although Mike Bowtell, head of corporate affairs, said he was encouraged by the findings. "But I feel that if the company was approached at a different entry point and on a different day, the results might be reversed. And that would be true for other companies too." He agreed, however, that "it may be sensible for companies to widen the base of what we call our image".

J Sainsbury said: "From time to time in an organisation of this size, it is inevitable that there will be an occasional breakdown of communications - but we aim to be as consistent as possible."

The solution, Mr Wells said, was to develop messages or stances that create similar impressions shared by different groups of stakeholders.