Ipsos Corporate Reputation

The Spread of Techlash

How can businesses respond to the reputational challenges of technological change – including privacy, data leaks, advertising practices, and AI
and automation?

Technological backlash doesn’t just affect tech companies; a majority of Reputation Council members across all sectors say that tech issues, particularly around the use of personal data, have become more important to them.
There are three key areas that communicators need to watch out for to protect companies’ reputations: data security, new international regulations and standards, and fake news.
Techlash is no different to the reputational challenges that many other sectors have faced in the past, and traditional communications techniques – understanding different stakeholder perceptions, message testing, horizon scanning, and crisis preparedness – are key to tackling the threat.

If you’re not worried about the impact of techlash on your company, perhaps you should be.

Techlash was defined by the Financial Times as ‘the growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents’ when it chose the term as one of the defining words of 2018.

But technology issues are increasingly shaping the reputations of businesses in every sector.

Our own Ipsos research shows that these concerns are key issues for stakeholders, particularly around data privacy, where lack of understanding means groups as diverse as media, consumers and government make assumptions about how their data is being used and misused by companies in practices that aren’t explained.

WHICH, IF ANY, OF THE FOLLOWING ISSUES DO YOU THINK HAVE BECOME MORE IMPORTANT SINCE TECHLASH STARTED?

Council members have plenty of advice for preparing for these issues, but Ipsos says: keep ahead of what stakeholders know (or think they know) about your company.

In 2018, tech companies came under scrutiny again – this time, not because Apple was claimed to be funnelling profits through Dublin, or Samsung phones were exploding, but for reasons much more closely tied to their core business: data use and misuse by tech firms and third parties, ‘fake news’, and the threat of hackers.

of Council members expect data and privacy issues to affect their own companies.

But these issues don’t just affect tech companies any more. Three quarters of Council members say that transparency around data collection and usage has become more important to them since techlash started, and more than half are concerned about ‘fake news’.

The vast majority (86%) of Council members expect these issues to affect their own companies – and those who don’t either don’t require personal data for their business model or are confident that they have prepared enough already to avoid being affected.

There are three particular areas that Council members mentioned when we asked why they expected techlash to affect them.

All companies are data companies now

There are few companies in the world which don’t collect data as part of doing business, whether that’s consumer, supplier or client information. As one Council member put it, “companies will become just as much data companies as they are health companies.” The smart dashboard in your car means that companies like Nissan or General Motors hold much more data on customers than even 20 years ago. Supermarkets can email you when your favourite brand of toilet paper is back in stock.

The more data is collected, the more stakeholders want to know what exactly the company is doing with the data. In the era of smartphones, many of the data connections are transparent but baffling – why does your new gaming app need access to your Facebook data? For some companies, data security is nothing new.

Council members in the banking sector claim that they are ahead of the curve, having had stringent data protection mechanisms in place since before the World Wide Web. Being early adopters has paid off: Ipsos Global Trends data from 2016 shows that more people trust banks with their data than any other type of business. For other companies, it will mean a change in how they think about themselves.

No matter where you work, working in corporate communications means you may soon face questions about what data your company collects and how it is shared and used.

"The big challenge is that the digital world is based on data, while our company is not used to dealing with data. We need to develop competencies and expertise in data management and privacy. Developing new competencies is always a big challenge."
"We will have to review and follow the legislation on private data that has just arrived in Europe. It is necessary to discipline the company, establish rules and criteria to respect these laws. So the impact on the company is difficult, but it does not endanger the life of the company, we just have to adapt the organisation."
Europe regulates the world

2018 was the year that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took force – and you could hardly avoid it. Certainly, our Council members around the world felt its force. Communicators working in Europe mention the steps their companies took to become compliant – but in our interconnected world, what happens in Europe has ramifications much further afield. Some Council members from outside the EU say that they have taken GDPR as their starting point, both for dealing with European stakeholders (a legal requirement) and for assumptions about how data protection standards might be rolled out across the world in the future.

We know from our wider research that the general public in the UK are more clued up on GDPR than you might expect.

Its adoption has not yet started to make an impact on how much the public trust the organisations and industry sectors that use our data most frequently and on the largest scale. But communications leaders should expect a more knowledgeable public to ask more questions in the future.

Fake News

The word of the year from 2017 shows no signs of going away in 2019. Communicators must still watch out for the implications of fake news scandals. They can happen in public places (the new town halls of Facebook and Twitter) or in private groups (encrypted services like WhatsApp), and each location requires a radically different response from communicators.

"Nowadays, on social networks, people often build their own fictional world, pretending to do wonderful things that they do not actually do. Conversely, [we have] real incredible stories to tell and, paradoxically, find it difficult to prove that such stories are true."

Council members talk about two of the main threats from fake news.

Lies about their companies can spread like wildfire, and corporate rebuttals don’t have the same virality as the initial stories. One Council member states:

"Power is actually in everyone’s hands. Today a fake news [story], if well crafted, does not have to be made by a large vehicle, and it has a greater destructive potential than anything else."
"You have to understand how you can use this digital world in a healthier way by letting people know that your [communications] are not fake news, they are not untruths. When I run a campaign, I have to have a certain credibility."

All companies have good stories they want to tell, but some Council members fear that the pervading atmosphere of distrust means the public won’t believe them.

We have to remember that cultural context is a force at play here. Massive closed groups, through which false stories can spread, are much more prevalent in developing markets than in developed economies. And Ipsos research in 27 countries shows that the crisis of trust in traditional media sources is more overblown than we might think: it is a problem in established markets, true, but developing markets report an increase in trust in professional media outlets. Whatever your target audience, it’s important to find out where they get their news, and what credibility they put in individual publications – including your company communications.

"Our company must think and operate as if observers were always present, and perfection must be the goal: if consumers observed what we do, they would say that it is perfect. Nobody is perfect, but we strive for continuous improvement."
"At some point people will understand and say: okay, it’s not just in social networks, it’s how companies are using my data, and this will affect other sectors."

Final thoughts

Despite the different forms that technological backlash can take, Council members advise four key ways to keep on top of the story.

The fundamentals of communications haven’t changed. Be clear and transparent, and communicate openly and honestly. Much of the tech-related suspicion facing corporates at the moment stems from a lack of understanding among the public – something that doesn’t just affect technology companies, but all companies which use personal data.

Get ahead of the story. Council members perceive that many tech companies are playing catch up, reacting to stories as they explode, rather than defusing them before they begin. For all companies, regular horizon scanning can help you keep track of issues as they start to emerge. Many of our research programmes among senior publics take this long-term approach, helping our clients understand where they might be in five years’ time as well as what needs to be fixed right now.

Be more joined up. Members observe that changes and uncertainty in the policy or public environment don’t affect any company in isolation. Over the years that we’ve been conducting reputation research for some of the biggest companies in the world, we’ve seen that, rightly or wrongly, sector reputations often rise and fall as one. Even audiences that you hope know better, like senior legislators, often get confused about whether a story they heard involved company A or company B. It’s important to know what issues ‘belong’ to a sector and what ‘belong’ to individual companies from the external perspective. There are areas in all sectors where a united approach can make a bigger difference than individual efforts, even for some of the largest companies in the world.

This is part of growing up. Many Council members are sanguine about the challenges that the tech sector is facing at the moment because they’ve been through it themselves. They view it as a sign of a maturing sector. Perceptions of the tech sector will settle, but it is important for businesses to communicate their viewpoint so that this settlement doesn’t happen without their involvement and isn’t to their detriment.

Methodology: 154 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between 25th June and 12th November 2018.

Read more from the Reputation Council...

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Reputation on the rise: Safeguarding your brand reputation through investment in cyber security

There is a difference, it seems, between knowing something and really knowing something. As a professional of 15 years’ experience in the brand reputation space there are a number of issues that I have to talk to clients about again and again, where it is clear that the people I am speaking to know, and largely agree with, what I am saying… but then either fail to take the appropriate action or come back and ask the same question a year or so later. There are a number of these issues; whether general public marketing affects the opinions of politicians is one, as are questions about how to improve trust.

One that is perhaps less obvious a question is the importance of cyber security to reputation. However, it is a topic that has come up frequently over the years, both from clients asking about it through to Ipsos writing articles and thought pieces on the subject. Myself and colleagues wrote about the cybercrime threat to reputation back in 2016 and 2017, and warned that businesses were perhaps overconfident and underprepared for the risks posed by cybercrime in both 2018 and 2019.

Nevertheless, we still got the sense that despite our clients knowing that cybersecurity is a potential threat to their hard-worn corporate reputation, they somehow didn’t really take it seriously. I get that IT is less sexy than marketing and events when it comes to reputation management, but it is certainly as important. Losing data on a large scale strikes a blow against any company’s ability to portray themselves as competent, well managed or trustworthy.

Nearly 9 in 10 senior industry leaders invest in cyber security to protect the reputation of the companies they work for. It’s high time you joined them.

Bearing all this in mind, I was enthused to see data in Ipsos’s 2020 Captains of Industry survey that seems to indicate senior business leaders are not only cognizant that cybersecurity is important from an operational perspective but also from the point of view of reputation management.

When asked directly to give the main reasons for investing in cybersecurity, nearly nine in ten Captains of Industry said that it was “to protect our reputation”, with 30% saying that it was the most important reason. Only business continuity was more important. This is a huge endorsement of cybersecurity as a reputational shield, and one that is being embraced by business leaders themselves rather than being forced upon them by shareholders or customer demand (the more traditional triggers for investment in cybersecurity).

Given the importance of reputation – it is now the third ranked factor that Captains of Industry look for when judging an organisation – the way cybersecurity is being directly linked to reputation is huge positive and suggests that business leaders (and my clients) are beginning to understand its importance. I would even go further and suggest that cybersecurity not only protects a firm’s reputation, but it also safeguards its financial performance and perceptions of the quality of its management, the top two factors listed by Captains of Industry when judging a company or organisation.

While I am under no illusion that questions about the importance of cybersecurity to reputation are going to go away, hopefully these results indicate that we have reached a tipping point and that soon cybersecurity will take its place alongside the other recognised and respected tools of reputation and brand managers.

For more information please contact:

Carl Phillips
Director & Global Stakeholder Research Lead
Corporate Reputation,
Technology Sector

Carl.Phillips@ipsos.com

Fashion Victims: The Losers in the Fast Fashion Race

What can comms. leaders learn from the challenges facing companies in the fashion Industry?

The fashion industry has been under the spotlight recently for all the wrong reasons. The industry is going through a period of rapid change, brands and retailers are increasingly exposed to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues in their supply chains, resulting in an intensified threat to reputation. Just last summer Boohoo was caught up in allegations around poor working conditions and allegations of paying employees in their supply chain below the minimum wage.

The restrictions imposed on consumer life throughout the COVID pandemic have acted as a rare speed bump on an industry that has otherwise been evolving unabated at a frightening pace. Ipsos Sustainability Monitor (SBM) 2020 data reveals that over half of consumers (55%) are buying less clothing than they were pre-pandemic. With the world on pause we ask what’s next for the fashion industry? How do brands best navigate these issues? How engaged are consumers in these issues? And what can comms leaders, across all industries, learn from the challenges being faced by the fashion industry?

Fast Fashion: a quick overview

Fast Fashion: “Inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.”

Since the late 90s, globalisation has opened-up Western markets to cheaper labour in the East. Cheaper clothing and ever shortening fashion cycles (including the development of the weekly ‘micro season’) means that clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, while the average number of garments purchased by the average Western consumer increased by 60% (McKinsey).[1]

Fast fashion is fuelled by celebrity culture, fads and the 24/7 nature of social media. SBM 2020 data shows that three-quarters of consumers agree that clothing and fashion are becoming cheaper and more throw-away in nature. And while just 14% of consumers say they feel under increased pressure to keep up with the latest trends and fashion, this rises to 24% among the youngest group (18-34 year olds). The fashion industry (and fast fashion in particular) are associated with serious ESG issues, outlined below.

Figure A) ESG issues typically associated with fast fashion (and the wider clothing industry)

  • Environmental issues: The fashion industry is considered by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to be the second largest polluter in the world, after the oil industry (UN)[2]
  • Social issues: Forced/ slave labour, child labour, dangerous working condition… The Clean Clothes campaign reports wages in Eastern markets are typically a fifth of average living wage there.[3] Average working days are 14-16 hours, 7 days per week (Clean Clothes Campaign)[4]
  • Governance issues: Overproduction is a massive issue. More than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year, (McKinsey)[5] with consumers keeping clothing on average half as long as they did 15 years ago

1) Ethical considerations and the impact on purchasing behaviour

ESG issues around fast fashion and the clothing industry have been widely reported. As consumer awareness grows, we might speculate that ethical considerations will come to take on more importance in the minds of consumers. But how much impact do ethical considerations have over clothes purchasing decisions?

When it comes to what actually drives clothes purchase decisions, the more conventional levers such as price style and quality hold the most sway. None-the-less almost a third of consumers say that ethical issues are one of the top 3 factors that influence their decisions over clothes purchases (and 8% say that it is their primary consideration).

In the era of fast fashion it is perhaps surprising that ‘trends’ (keeping up with friends, celebrities, social media and advertising) is the least selected factor influencing clothes purchases. Caveats should be applied (the results are self-reported and people might underplay the amount of influence trends hold on them, the sample is 18+, missing a key demographic target for fast fashion, teenagers). But the result does suggest that fast fashion is concentrated not only in small proportion of the worlds markets (Western markets) but also within a small proportion of the population within those markets. A small number of people are likely to be responsible for a lot of clothes purchases. While 30% of consumers say they buy more clothes than they need, this rises to 42% among those that say ‘trends’ are a top 3 influencing factor, and 55% among those that say that ‘trends’ are the primary influence on their clothes purchases (SBM data 2020).

#1. Know your customer: For 3-in-10 consumers ethical issues are a key decision-making criterion in what clothes they buy. Whether your business is in fashion or elsewhere, there is clear reputational risk in not being aware of, or not fully understanding what motivates and what matters to your customers.  

Chart B: Ipsos SBM data 2020: Clothing and fashion purchase decisions

2) Consumer disconnects over ethical issues

What consumers want they don’t necessarily get

Ethical issues play an important secondary role in clothing purchase decision making but what action do consumers think should be taken? Four-in-five consumers agree that brands and retailers should do more to help protect the environment and safeguard workers’ rights within their supply chains, and 77% of consumers say that clothing brands and retailers should provide more information. However, there is a large disconnect between what consumers want and what they get. Just 17% of consumers agree that the fashion industry provides enough information about the environmental and social impacts of the manufacturing of clothes.

Consumer good intentions not necessarily reflected by their actions

When it comes to taking personal action, although 56% of consumers say that if a clothing brand was associated with environmental pollution in its manufacturing process, they would be putting off from buying clothing from that brand, just 28% of consumers have researched brands that provide ethical clothing.

#2. Be transparent: As globalisation has increased the complexity of supply chains in the fashion industry, it’s becoming harder for many brands and retailers to maintain transparency. Whether your business is in fashion or elsewhere, consumers want to be able to make informed decisions, they want to be provided with clear and complete information (and they probably expect you to do at least some (if not all) of the legwork).

Chart C: Ipsos SMB data 2020 & Ipsos Sustainable Fashion Survey 2018 data: The disconnect between consumer good intentions and their actions

3) What's to be done?

Consumers clearly want more ethical accountability from brands and retailers. But by what means do they want this delivered? In 2019 the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its “Fixing Fashion Report”[6] making 18 recommendations to the government to help clean up the industry, including;

  • Mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36 million
  • More proactive approach to enforcement of the National Minimum Wage with greater resourcing for HMRC’s National Minimum Wage team to increase inspection and detection work
  • The Government should publish a publicly accessible list of retailers required to release a modern slavery statement. This should be supported by an appropriate penalty for those companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act

The Ipsos SBM 2020 survey tested what level of consumer support there would be for clothing and fashion brands and retailers that adopted similar commitments through their own volition. Across the 8 statements tested by the SBM survey (see chart D) between 67% and 78% of consumers said that the measures would make them feel more positively about a clothing brand or retailer. Commitments to national minimum wage (43%) and proof of compliance with the Modern Slavery Act (40%) had the most ‘much more’ positive impact. There are notable differences by demographics.

18-34 year olds are much more likely to say that they would be ‘much more’ positive about brands across all of these measures:

  • 44% of 18-34 year olds said they would be much more positive about brands that set themselves environmental targets compared to 24% of 55+ year olds
  • 44% of 18-34 year olds said they would be much more positive about brands that made commitments to using sustainable materials compared to 28% of 55+ year olds

Women are also much more positive across all of the measures:

  • 46% of women felt much more positive about stores that set-up in-store schemes to help customers recycle their old clothes compared to 30% of men
  • 40% of women felt much more positive about brands that helped to reduce textile waste compared to 25% of men

Women and millennials with disposable income form a key target audience for the fashion industry. As ethical and ESG considerations climb up the agenda they are likely to hold more influence over brand reputation and consumer purchase behaviours. If your clothing range is targeted at younger consumers and women in particular, then commitments to the environment and the wellbeing of employees in your supply chain is quickly transitioning from a nice-to-have to a necessity.

#3. Collaborate with your customers: There is clear support for measures that help clean up the fashion industry and reputational rewards are available for brands that adopt similar commitments. Whether your business lies in fashion or elsewhere it pays reputationally to align your business’s commitments to those of your customer. Take pride in your commitments and collaborate with your customers.

Chart D: Ipsos SBM data 2020: Impact of brand and retailer ethical commitments

4) Conclusion & Recommendations: An opportunity to build brand reputation

Fashion at its heart is an outlet for self-expression, choice, freedom, communication, it’s a vehicle to bolster confidence, for consumers to feel good about themselves. Exploitation and corporate greed aren’t a great look for brands trying to make their customers feel good about themselves. And there’s evidence that fashion brands are starting to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Model examples   

  • Sustainable materials & Slow fashion - H&M offers a new ‘Conscious’ range. To qualify the product must contain at least 50% sustainable materials e.g. organic cotton or recycled polyester. Levi’s ‘Water<Less’ collection uses up to 96% less water in its denim production. Patagonia only uses sustainable materials in their outwear. They champion “slow fashion” by helping customers repair garments and encouraging customers to recycle and buy second hand
  • Circular economy – TK Maxx ‘Give Up Clothes for Good’ campaign has recycled 1.6m bags of clothing since 2004. They also have a zero waste to landfill target. M&S ‘Shwopping’ partnership with Oxfam 30million garments swapped and £21million raised for people living in extreme poverty. The circular economy is based on reusing and recycling materials rather than throwing them away
  • Codes of conduct – TK Maxx operates a ‘vendor code of conduct,’ committing vendors to use no child or forced labour, protect employee rights on wages, working hours and adhering to health & safety regulations in the workplace

Whether or not we see a return to business as usual on the high street as COVID-19 subsides, consumers are expecting more from businesses and brands, challenging them to perform a social purpose beyond simply turning a profit. This increased scrutiny presents a risk certainly, but with it also a growing opportunity. Ipsos Corporate Reputation Centre has 40 years’ experience in helping global businesses navigate reputational challenges.

Ipsos Recommendations

1) Know your customer – understand what issues concern them and to what extent it concerns them. How does this impact how they perceive your brand?

2) Transparency & third-party endorsements – good brand reputation is built on trust. Third party endorsements such as the Fair-Trade Foundation and the Impact Report are a means to showing your customers that you care and take their concerns seriously. Avoid shortcuts and greenwashing and practise what you preach.

3) Collaborate & take pride – show consumers that you are on their side, that you want to make life easier and more straight forward for them and that you can help bring clarity, speed and convenience to the purchasing decisions that they care about. Collaborate and work in partnership with customers towards shared goals.

Article links

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula

[2] https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/03/1035161

[3] https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry#anchor-environmental-impact

[4] https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry#anchor-environmental-impact

[5] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf

[6] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/2311/2311.pdf

For more information about how Ipsos can help you, get in touch:

Tom Cox
Research Manager
Corporate Reputation, Consumer Sector

Tom.Cox@ipsos.com