Reputation in France: Social Performance Comes First

By Fabrice Fries, President, France, MSLGROUP 

In France, the question of corporate reputation is invariably seen in an ideological context and historically one that is wary, if not critical, of anything to do with business. Surely the digital age, in a country particularly connected to the internet, is changing the way we engage, or disengage with brands. But their perception of their presumed utility in economic, social and environmental progress remains a matter of debate.

To measure reputation, the French, more than others, give greater importance to aspects such as “corporate governance” or “good corporate citizenship”. Inversely, the quality of products and services is substantially underweighted.

In other words, companies are expected to be equally efficient in their working methods as in what they do. Social challenges meet commercial challenges.

arcelor mittal
In France, a company’s reputation is often hit by politics: in 2012, Arcelor Mittal came under fire during the election campaign.

The different barometers used to measure corporate reputation in France demonstrate this specificity. As such, the correlation is immediately made between the role given to any industrial sector during a particular economic crisis, and the score it will be given by the general public.

How do different industries fare in France?

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Over the past few years, banks have been generally ranked poorly. Most recently, following a series of restructuring and redundancy plans, the automobile industry has suffered as a whole.

In a more insidious manner and despite undeniable progress in products and services offerings, two sectors are traditionally low in reputation rankings. On one hand, the pharmaceutical industry, suspected of putting private financial interests before the interest of public health. And on the other hand, the telecom industry, accused implicitly of taking advantage of the consumer in price fixing and collusion on offers.

Which companies are ahead of the rest?

Finally, companies that have gained the respect of the French, present three characteristics:

  • They are historical industrial powerhouses, intimately linked to the image of French excellence.
  • They are brands from the digital era, encompassing the positive attributes of a connected society.
  • And they are brands that communicate heavily on their commitments, particularly in relation to the environment.

In a recent poll published by a leading economic newspaper in partnership with public relations agencies, three major names made it to the top of the list.

  • First, Google, the symbol of promise in the digital wave. Its products and services, and its overall management style and employability, generate enthusiasm, especially among younger generations.
  • Danone, a global leader in the food industry benefits from a policy patiently built around major social issues. This strategy is largely based on the brand’s strong commitment to two issues of great social importance: health and sustainable development. Until now, this commitment has allowed Danone to avoid the collateral damage of food and health related crises that often challenge other industry players.
Danone’s commitment in emerging countries via the “Danone Communities” initiative is a key factor of Danone’s reputation.
  • Finally, and somewhat unexpectedly, Michelin, the global leader in tires, is perceived by the French public as a particularly efficient brand in terms of innovation, quality and sustainability, and safety of their products. The company’s financial results, reflecting its focus on social dialogue in a context where competitors are brutally cutting jobs in France, also explains its high ranking in public opinion.

Nevertheless, the French remain more reserved than the rest of the world when judging corporate performance. In fact, this is the last criteria considered in developing an opinion.

Despite the generally positive performance ratings of bigger companies, the French are substantially more interested in the more social and societal aspects of reputation; for example, employment is considered as important as innovation.

In essence, the French consider that performance is not a means to an end but rather that it should be part of the shared vision of all stakeholders.

For example, the French are unfazed by the spectacular financial performance of Total, because the company’s image is engulfed in accusations of “bad practices” in some developing countries. Inversely, the excellent reputation of Yves Rocher is fundamentally based on the company’s longstanding commitment to sustainable development.

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Yves Rocher has built its marketing upon the respect of nature for decades. This key component of its reputation is now developed on social networks.

Engaging the French Consumer: Getting the message and the medium right

This French approach to reputation has consequences on how consumers impact brand reputations in the era of “digital conversation.” Thus, only one third of consumers base their decision to “follow” a brand on market related criteria such as products, services and innovation.

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For all others, what is essential are matters of ethics, the way the company operates, or in other words its immaterial dimension.

This observation requires that agencies which, like Publicis Consultants, claim an expertise in “sustainable” reputation, create long-lasting and comprehensive strategies with their clients.

Audiences are indeed increasingly multifaceted and less segmented. There is no use of developing the “employability” on one side, without taking into account social utility on the other. Transparency means being unquestionable in all aspects of the game.

Especially since leaders, in France and elsewhere, are well aware that reputation constitutes the number one risk. This change of mind is more clearly visible in areas directly impacted by public debate, such as health and energy, but nevertheless applies to all brands. The speed with which respected brands have been tarnished, such as happened to Barilla in 2013, sends an important signal.

Obviously amongst the leading risk factors is social media. Beyond the necessary technological agility, the expertise of our network is judged by our clients on the quality of our offer of content creation to build a sustainable reputation. “Consumer content” and “Corporate content” are not so distant from one another. In fact, it is their seamless articulation that can generate reputational impact.


This post is part of the People’s Insights magazine “The Future of Reputation

MSLGROUP People's Lab

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