French consultancy ComCorp has drawn up a reputation index for companies working in the digital sectors. And although image issues are likely to have a stronger impact on the future of these companies than firms in other fields, ‘model pupils’ are rare.

Corporate Reputation Management: do digital companies need a special approach?

Consultancy Deloitte had already pointed out that companies are rarely fully aware of what is at stake when their reputation is called into question. Reputation-related risks have reached the point where they may threaten a company’s very existence, says a recent Deloitte report. ComCorp CEO Charles de La Rochefoucauld agrees, stressing that: “You don't buy something when you’re doubtful about the brand.” ComCorp has now made its input to this hot topic by drawing up a reputation index for the world’s major digital companies. The French corporate reputation consultancy counted the number of times each brand was mentioned and the tone of what was said on around thirty media channels, and combined this data with the audience figures for each channel. The resulting graphic sees four ‘model pupils’ highlighted in the ‘trustworthy’ zone: Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and LG. However, the vast majority of the digital sector companies examined either lack visibility or are suffering from negative public opinion, or both at the same time. So it would seem that most of the digital giants still have quite some work to do to place their image on a solid footing, especially as they apparently face issues that are entirely specific to the digital sectors.

Reputation index : how influencers see brands

Is the data trap specific to digital firms?

The fact that digital players’ reputations are relatively weak could be due to factors that are specific to this field. A Harris poll published by Nielsen last year revealed that 76% of consumers surveyed were very worried about data security issues. This concern about personal data protection, especially in the light of a number of recent security breaches, has led to a feeling of mistrust towards data-gathering companies. Nevertheless, Charles de La Rochefoucauld puts this into perspective: “Security has no brand. It’s the companies’ intentions that raise questions.” Mistrust is therefore directed more at the technology being used than at the brands which use it. The ComCorp CEO takes the example of Google Glass, a project that has now been abandoned, not because the company has a poor reputation but mainly because of the gizmo itself, which raised a huge number of questions around data management and people’s right to privacy. Connected cars, whatever brand we are talking about, is another area facing similar issues.

Companies need to articulate their vision

Notwithstanding these doubts, digital companies still have a good hand to play: they are adept at innovation. According to Robert Fronk, Senior Vice President at Nielsen who was interviewed by 24/7 Wall St, what distinguishes top-reputed companies is that they are able to transcend their respective industries. Referring to Amazon and Apple, he asked: “Are they still technology companies?” These companies “hit on some of the best attributes of different industries and, combining that with a customer focus, certainly have a leg-up on positive reputation.” Charles de La Rochefoucauld is struck by the example of Apple: “In the beginning the brand relied only on word-of-mouth endorsements, it didn’t do any advertising. And public opinion has been so positive that now consumers are happy to pay much more for the products.” He feels this goes a long way towards explaining the position of the Apple brand in the index. Apple is way ahead of all its competitors both as regards visibility and positive comments in the media. However, when consumers are quizzed directly, as in the Harris/ Nielsen survey, it is interesting to observe that Apple is far from being out in front, especially as regards corporate social responsibility. The ComCorp CEO believes that “companies now need to explain their vision to the world”, not just tout their products.

By Guillaume Scifo