May 23, 2024 - Business

Corporate cancellation might not be permanent

Illustration of a briefcase with an accordion-spring boxing glove coming out of it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Wading into the culture wars can directly impact corporate reputation, but the effects do not appear to be everlasting.

Why it matters: The corporate reputations of Anheuser-Busch InBev and Target saw minimal decline, while Disney is already showing signs of recovery, this year's Axios/Harris Poll 100 rankings found.

How it works: The poll surveyed 6,273 Americans between Jan. 16-27 to establish the public's top-of-mind awareness of corporate reputation.

  • From there, 16,500 Americans rated the 100 most-visible companies based on corporate citizenship, ethics, culture, trust, vision, growth, and products and services.

State of play: Given the tense political environment, economic uncertainty and fractured information landscape, it's harder than ever to win favor with consumers.

  • The number of companies with a reputation rating of "excellent" — just two, Nvidia and 3M — is at its lowest in over a decade, according to the survey.
  • Based on year-over-year trends, corporate reputation across all sectors is three times more likely to decline than it is to improve.

Zoom in: Bud Light parent AB InBev saw its reputation score drop six points due to the backlash stemming from its 2023 social media campaign featuring a transgender influencer.

  • There also remains a clear partisan divide, with the beer giant ranking within the top 50 (No. 48) among Democrats, but in the bottom 5 for Republicans (No. 95).

Target came under fire last summer for its Pride Month products and has seen a decline in its reputation score since.

  • The retailer is also viewed as the third most politically polarizing company — behind the Trump Organization and Fox News, but ahead of AB InBev.

Disney found itself in the political crosshairs in 2022 after voicing opposition to Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" legislation.

  • Of note: Disney appears to be recovering, jumping 10 spots to No. 67 since last year.
  • The company also made inroads with the Republican electorate, moving from No. 95 to No. 85 this year, while remaining in the top 20 for Democrats (No. 18).

Reality check: The six- and three-point declines of AB InBev and Target respectively is insignificant compared to the 20-point decline that Volkswagen saw after its emissions scandal in 2015 or the 20-point drop Wells Fargo experienced after its fraudulent account scheme in 2016.

  • Operational failures or corporate scandals still prove more damaging to reputation than cultural commentary.

Yes, but: The American public is split on whether companies should comment on geopolitical, social or cultural issues that don't directly relate to the business.

  • 48% of Americans believe businesses should weigh in and 52% say they should not, according to a recent Gallup poll.
  • This often creates tension with employees, particularly those that skew more left-leaning or younger.
  • 59% of those aged 18 to 29 and 75% of Democrats say businesses should take a stance, compared to 18% of Republicans.

What they're saying: According to Zeno Group's head of corporate affairs, Kim Metcalfe, companies should consider how the issue at hand relates to the business before weighing in.

  • "It really comes down to three things," she told Axios. "A. Authenticity in the space. If a company has spoken about the issue or supported the issue in the past, they have a track record. B. Is there 'Business Value' to speaking about the issue? Does it support the business in some way? And C. Does a company have the 'Capability' to effect change? If a company decides to comment, [then] it should be in a position to do something about it too."

What to watch: With Pride Month just around the corner, brands are considering how best to engage in celebrations and campaigns that support the LGBTQ+ community, without prompting consumer backlash across both sides of the aisle.

Go deeper: Target cuts Pride Month products from some stores after backlash

Go deeper