Besides being a welcome break from the headline risk crises on safety, quality and ethics facing BP (NYSE:BP), Toyota (NYSE:TM), and Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), the issue provides an opportunity to test a central hypothesis held by the Society and described in detail in the book, Mission Intangible. This is it.
Reputation value is the sum of the value contributed by six key intangible assets (business processes) governing ethics, quality, innovation, safety, sustainability, and security. The assets create value cooperatively like the stones in a Roman arch; loss of any one key stone can destroy significant value.
Let’s also recap what is value. Market capitalization is the obvious one. More to the point, companies with superior reputations have enhanced pricing power, lower operating costs, lower credit costs, and higher earnings multiples. It's that simple.
Walmart has invested significant time and effort into building authentic credentials and a reputation for excellence in sustainability practices. Is its reputation for sustainability sufficient to compensate for its less-than-stellar reputation in labor (ethics)? The hypothesis would suggest that they are independent, and that failure in either could erase the reputation value created by the other. Let’s look at the numbers.
The Steel City Re Corporate Reputation Index, also described in greater detail in the book, Mission Intangible, shows that Walmart’s reputation ranking has slipped from the coveted #1 slot of the 100th percentile among 39 peers in the multiline retail sector. Over the past 16 months, Walmart has moved from the top ranking to the 94th percentile. Economically, its return on equity has underperformed both the median return of its peers (by 42%) and the S&P500 benchmark index.
In contrast, Target Inc. (NYSE:TGT), a rival whose charting in this Mission Intangible blog back in June 2009 has been the most popular post ever, raised its reputation ranking among this peer group from the 46th percentile to the 94th percentile. At the same time, it outperformed the median of its peers (by 27%) and the S&P500 index.
Also for contrast look at Walgreen Co. (NYSE:WAG). During this period, their reputation ranking rose from the 69th percentile to the 81st percentile, and it outperformed its peer group by a narrow 2%, but comfortably beat the S&P500 Index.
Last, note that the multiline retail sector, as a group, slipped in its median reputation ranking relative to the broad market. Furthermore, the variance among the individual companies comprising this sector narrowed. The sector's median reputation ranking drop stands out dramatically in contrast against Target's reputation ranking rise.
Overall, these data affirm the increasing importance of reputation management in increasing, protecting and restoring enterprise value; and that reputation management involves addressing core business processes whose perceptions by stakeholders comprise reputation. These data also affirm the Roman Arch model, which plainly says, if you don't pay attention to all of your key business processes, then, when a headline crisis strikes, your stakeholders may turn on you in a heartbeat.