The global communications network Havas Media has just published its Meaningful Brands Index for 2013. The Index is part of Havas Media’s wider programme, Meaningful Brands, which sees social capital as the key to top market performance.
It seeks to “create shared value for brands and communities” and analyse the “connections brands have with our quality of life and wellbeing.” According to Havas, the emphasis on consumer connection plays out in the numbers: their Meaningful Brands outperform the stock market by 120%.
Rankings can be useful tools to aid understanding of particular sustainability or CSR issues, giving companies more information about key indicators and providing them with baselines and targets for future improvement.
The Carbon Disclosure Project and the Access to Nutrition Index both provide good examples of this, using rigorous methodologies to improve carbon intensity disclosure and nutritional practices respectively. And of course, for companies scoring highly they can also be a useful PR tool.
Unfortunately, Havas meaningful brands index leaves itself open to serious criticism. The company taking the top spot for 2013 is Google, in the very same week that Westminster hauls it over the coals for its dubious tax arrangements. Tax is a significant reputational risk, resonating especially strongly in the frosty climate of austerity Britain. Starbucks, Amazon and npower are just a few of the big name brands on the receiving end of ‘tax shaming’ recently. There is no methodology for the Index on the company’s website, except that it uses consumer perception to assess the impacts brands have on our lives. But as any CSR professional knows, consumer perception is a fickle thing.
Good reputations and loyalty can be swiftly undermined. Starbucks’ attempted appeasement pay-out recognised this, as do the bolstered sales of Costa as loyalties switched. The London Olympics sponsors all backed away from their tax breaks once the public mood became clear.
We have to ask how useful a ranking can be if it is based on one changeable indicator. As the news broke this week that the All-Party Public Accounts Committee has called for an inquiry into Google’s tax arrangements, the global giant’s motto ‘don’t be evil’ was being pummelled across social media.
Havas Media rightly emphasises social impact as a top priority for 21st Century businesses but by measuring ‘meaningfulness’ by consumer perception alone, this snapshot ranking has overlooked social impacts of another kind. This year’s Index might just have a winner that is meaningful for all the wrong reasons.
Emily Kenway works in the third sector promoting responsible practices by companies and investors. Prior to 2011, Emily was a professional opera singer before following her passion for sustainability into this new career. Her particular interests include the circular economy, environmental impacts, and the food industry.