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MISSION:INTANGIBLE, the blog of the Intangible Asset Finance Society, offers critical comments on intangible asset, corporate reputation, and finance; supplemented by quantitative reputation metrics. Intangible assets include business processes, patents, trademarks; reputations for ethics and integrity; quality, safety, sustainability, security, and resilience; and comprise 70% of the average company's value. MISSION:INTANGIBLE is a registered trademark of the Intangible Asset Finance Society.

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Big Box Retailers: Price, quality, and location

Nir Kossovsky - Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A big box retailer’s reputation is driven by the price and quality of its products, but not by its propinquity. Such are the data from an analysis prompted by the July 2010 issue of Consumer Reports magazine whose headline reads, “Best stores for practically anything.”

The 2 June press release provides highlights of a survey of 30,000 readers of the consumer-oriented magazine on their big-store shopping preferences. The companies are Costco (NASDAQ:COST), Dillard's Inc. (NYSE:DDS), Kohl's Corporation (NYSE:KSS), JCPenny (NYSE:JCP), Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT), Sam's Club (NYSE:WMT), Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD), Macy's Inc. (NYSE:M), Meijer (private), Walmart Stores (NYSE:WMT), and Kmart (NYSE:SHLD). The results of the survey may surprise you. If you are a follower of this blog, the correlation of the results of the survey with the metrics of the Steel City Re Corporate Reputation Index should not.

According to the magazine, the Consumer Reports ratings are based on the experiences of 30,666 readers who characterized 56,922 trips to 11 retailers between April 2008 to April 2009. The Reader Score represents overall satisfaction. A score of 100 would mean all respondents were completely satisfied; 80 means they were very satisfied on average; 60, fairly well. The results are summarized in the table at left.

In the two charts below, we show the correlation of the consumer survey data with the Corporate Reputation Index metrics. Blog readers are generally familiar with the underpinnings of the rankings. For this analysis, we created a derivative metric, the Reputation Vector. The reputation vector takes three factors into account: the average Corporate Reputation Index ranking over the trailing twelve months; the trend, and the variance. The first graph shows the correlation of the Reader Score for all of the companies with the corresponding Reputation Vector value. The slope is positive, but the explanatory power of the trend line only accounts for about 20% of the variance.

According to the survey, for each of the stores, readers cited their primary reasons for shopping at that venue. The three reasons were low price, high quality products, and location. When the data are analyzed separately, a slightly more interesting pattern emerges. All three trend lines are still positive, but the explanatory powers are radically different. 77% of the variance in Reader Score is explained by variance in the Reputation Vector when shoppers were motivated by price; 100% of the variance is explained by the Reputation Vector when shoppers were motivated by quality (not that meaningful with only two data points); but only 4% of the variance is explained when shoppers were motivated by location.

The data suggest that the overall consumer experience as indicated by the Reader Score correlates well with the financially-relevant derivative metric of Reputation Vector – which captures the behavioral expectations of stakeholders -- when price or quality are the primary drivers of behavior. The moral: “Location, location, location” may still be important, but with so much now accessible through the internet, price and quality are by far more important drivers of reputation and the economic benefits and costs thereon.

Walmart: Laboring to protect its reputation

C. HUYGENS - Wednesday, May 12, 2010
As April came to a close, Walmart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) received bad news. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that the plaintiffs alleging unfair labor practices against female employees (read, unethical practices) can head to court as a class action. This decision transforms a nine year old matter into the largest class-action employment lawsuit in U.S. history.

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.

Lighter shade of green

Nir Kossovsky - Wednesday, November 04, 2009
In the Society’s pantheon of intangible assets that create enterprise value, one has defied efforts to build for it a universally compelling business case. Sustainability, unlike ethics, innovation, quality, safety and security, is not a practice that in our experience reliably has created enterprise value for its practitioners. Further, if one subscribes to the theory that there is wisdom in crowds, than the murkiness surrounding the value of sustainability persists. This is why. According to a recent survey of 1,400 CFOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with 20 or more employees, two-thirds of CFOs don't expect to boost sustainability efforts in next 12 months.

When asked whether they expect their companies’ emphasis on green initiatives to increase, decrease or remain the same in the next 12 months, 68 percent of chief financial officers (CFOs) interviewed said they anticipate no changes. More than a quarter (28 percent), however, said they expect an increased focus on the issue.

When we first saw this report, we assumed that those expecting to increase their focus would be companies that distributed product through Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT). More generally, we expected retailers and and their supply chains would be investing in green to conform with Wal-Mart’s sustainability requirements – or at least remain competitive.

We were not wrong. Looking horizontally at the data, while overall 28% expected to increase investments, 33% of the CFOs from companies in the retail sector expected to do so. Furthermore, while overall 5.15% expected to increase investments significantly, 6.3% of the CFOs from the retail sector were gearing up for bigger green initiatives.

However, we were surprised by some of the findings. First, the sector from which a plurality of CFOs expected to increase investments the most was finance – nearly 36%. At the other end of the spectrum was transportation – only 19%. However, nearly half of those in the transportation sector expected to make significant increases.

Growth and/or maintaining the status quo were not on everyone’s agenda. Sectors planning to cutback, according to the CFOs surveyed, include business services, construction and – ready for this – retail at 5.2, 4.8, and 3.8% respectively.

The survey was developed by Robert Half Management Resources.

Sifting for sentiment

Nir Kossovsky - Monday, August 17, 2009
We all know instinctively, if not by experience, that five minutes of headline risk can destroy years of reputation building. The IAFS is interested in the business processes that build reputation, the processes that transform perceptions into reputation, and how that value can be maximized. We focus on the intellectual properties that comprise business processes for innovation, safety, security, ethics, sustainability, and quality. We focus on artifacts of these processes, such as patents and trademarks, and we focus on metrics.

While the most important commercial metrics are financial, there are leading indicators of reputation that inform on reputation development through its value chain. That value chain is discussed in an article in issue 36 of the journal produced by the Society's publication partner, IAM magazine, IA Metrics for the Other IP Market. The value chain schematic from that article is reproduced below.

Today's note calls our readers' attention to a metric of public impression comprising, as shown above, "media tone." The source of the media tone metric is the Financial Times' new product now in beta, Newssift. From a recent Newssift blog, we provide a link, without addtional comment, on the FT's media tone metric, sentiment, as used to report on the retail sector.

To recap the leader of the most recent FT/Newssift blog, "How are discount retailers weathering the economy? Fresh on the heels of news that Wal-Mart missed its sales expectations, we’re using Newssift to explore sentiment in the discount retail sector."

For those who have participated in the Society's monthly call, Mission:Intangible Monthly Briefing, you will appreciate that the above fits well with our summer-of-metrics theme. Comments on the FT media tone instrument are welcome.

Target v. Wal-Mart

Nir Kossovsky - Friday, June 05, 2009
Note added May 2010: Click here to view an updated post.

We recently commented on activist investor Bill Ackman's unsuccessful efforts to make Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) more like Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT). Using the Steel City Re Corporate Reputation Index, we showed that Target's reputation has been on the upswing for the past six months while volatility has been declining. Today we compare and contrast the recent reputation metrics of these two companies seeking further insight into Ackman's surprising defeat,

The 180-day measures of the Target and Wal-Mart Index values and the associated measures of volatilty show opposite patterns. Over the past six months, Target's corporate reputation index values have been rising from approximately the 50th percentile of the 16-member Multiline retail sector to the 75th percentile. Over the same period, its exponential weighted moving average volatility has been steadily declining and as of ealier this week, was below four log orders of magnitude. On the other hand, Wal-Mart, which began this period near the 100th percentile, has slipped to the low 80's while its Index volatility has been climbing and is greater than Target's.

In short, the data show that Target is on the rebound while Wal-Mart appears to be slipping. Small wonder, then, that shareholders sided with Target's management and its strategy at the annual meeting last month.

Targeting Target

Nir Kossovsky - Wednesday, June 03, 2009
On 28 May, activist investor Bill Ackman’s $15m campaign to effect changes in Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) at the board level ended in an apparent defeat. Although some observers predicted Ackman's slate would win one or two seats out of the five he was seeking, he came away empty-handed. Target announced at the meeting that all incumbent directors were re-elected with at least 70% of the vote.

Advocates for activist investors and incumbent management have spun the outcome in many ways. Notwithstanding the merits of the differing arguments about investor's rights and corporate governance, we see here a simple story. Target is on the mend and current management has been given a mandate to proceed.

Supporting our version of the significance of the proxy fight outcome are the data from the Steel City Re IA (Corporate Reputation) Index. The Index, which correlates with reputation surveys such as those published by ForbesFortune, and Harris Interactive, captures the financial implications of stakeholder behaviors and expectations of stakeholder behaviors as determined by corporate reputation. The Index is a good leading indicator of financial performance and returns on equity.

The Steel City Re Index shows that after sliding from the #1 slot to below the 50th percentile late in 2008, Target has rebounded steadily over the past six months and is now ranked in the 75th percentile among its 15 peers in the Multiline retail sector. Over the last year, Target has outperformed the median of this group by 3.26%. Further, the exponentially weighted moving average index volatility has been steadily decreasing recently.

Ackman has specific ideas he would like management to implement. Management has accepted some and rejected others. Over the past six months, stakeholders have been rewarding  CEO Gregg W. Steinhafel and Target’s management for its balancing act with Ackman. Last week, shareholders voted to stick with management to the detriment of Ackman, whose fund, Pershing Square IV, has lost much of the $2 billion it bet on Target in 2007. We suspect the tussle is not over yet. 

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