Over the past several months, I’ve been doing research – a great deal of research – on strategic reputation management. And although my focus has been in preparation of my upcoming Strategic Reputation Management class I’ll be teaching for Rutgers University and in conjunction with my recently released book, I find my thoughts return to how this subject applies to the industry where I’ve spent much of my career: grocery retail.
Why? Because corporate social responsibility is a natural fit for food retailing and a perfect way to protect and enhance a company’s reputation. Yet I’m amazed at how this element of strategic reputation management frequently isn’t fully leveraged.
For example, despite the number of recalls and food-related issues that occur, those of us living in the U.S. are very fortunate to have an incredibly safe food supply. There are a number of federal, state, county and local regulations that mandate everything from temperatures for refrigerators to product dating. Yet, many food retailers go beyond the requirements.
Shoppers return because products are fresh and wholesome and packaged securely to protect contents from contamination. Employees are trained to handle food properly, and significant attention is paid to cleaning and storing food at the store, distribution center, and corporate levels.
Customers make daily, weekly and monthly trips to supermarkets to purchase items for themselves and their loved ones. Consequently, the industry is well poised to act as an advisor on health-related issues. Grocers offer: store tours for those with special dietary needs; classes on reading labels; educational programs for school children; food rating systems identifying nutritional value; product packaging and signage clearly identifying healthy choice options; and health fairs to help customers more easily access life-saving and pertinent health information.
But the industry takes “health and wellness” beyond food safety and education. Many of those affiliated with this sector make a conscious effort to be environmentally-friendly. They’ve discovered that both money and the planet can be saved through operational changes. Reducing water and energy usage, minimizing transportation needs by supporting packaging changes and local vendors, using eco-friendly cleaning products, and collaborating with special interest groups to preserve particular seafood species — these are but a few examples of how grocery retailers have taken a proactive stance toward environmental protection, even exceeding government mandates.
And, there is community investment at the store, corporate and foundation levels. When food banks request extra help, stores fill the coffers for those in need of sustenance. When a tornado, hurricane or flood ravages an area, grocery stores send clean water for drinking, food, and even detergent. And when a local group is having a fundraiser, it is the grocery store that pitches in, providing a parking lot, partnering with scripts, donating gift certificates or signing up employees as volunteers.
Grocery chains partner with small business by selling local produce and supporting fair trade in their private label programs. And when it comes to transparency, there are the shelves — clearly labeled with cost per ounce or per pound signage.
The list is endless as to how this industry leads by its socially and environmentally responsible actions, not because it has to but because it elects to do so. Yet, individual companies don’t always strategically leverage this in a manner that positively positions them from those outside of the industry – such as drug store or dollar store chains - or even uniquely sets them apart from direct competitors, if they are doing more than the other supermarkets in the community.
Sharing such information in an honest and open communication exchange with shoppers and employees will build goodwill that returns many times over by establishing loyalty. But, it also creates a safety net in troubled times. Trust, credibility, dependability – these are the words every grocery retailer wants to hear when someone describes the brand. These are the feelings that drive customer and employee allegiance when the business faces a crisis.
The research shows it’s advantageous to strategically manage an organization’s reputation by adopting and communicating a corporately responsible platform. Intuitively, you know it. So, what are you waiting for?