Companies we love

Which brands do Canadians trust the most? Our second annual survey finds a few surprises.


Queen Elizabeth visiting RIM, our 5th favourite company, in Waterloo. Photo: Tim Rooke / Rex Features

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some of our top brands tarnished by oil spills, tainted-meat scandals and the financial crisis. How well they withstood those trials and how quickly they revived depended, perhaps more than anything, on the depth and integrity of their reputations. It’s not enough today to create a product or service that people love—consumers have to love the corporate entity itself, suggest the results of our new survey.

Reputation is a tricky thing to quantify, but the Reputation Institute aims to do just that. The international research and consulting organization helps firms measure and manage how the world sees them. Since 2006, it’s been conducting the Global RepTrak Pulse study that sizes up the relative respect and affection commanded by the globe’s biggest companies, a task that involves polling more than 85,000 consumers (the interviews ended in mid-April).

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For the second year in a row, Canadian Business teamed with the institute to assess the reputations of 50 of Canada’s biggest companies by revenue, focusing on companies that deal directly with consumers or have a high public profile. Each was rated by 100 people familiar with the firm on its governance, corporate citizenship, innovation, workplace, leadership, performance, and products and services. The survey also rated consumers’ trust, esteem and goodwill toward the brand. “It’s the emotional appeal of a company that is at the foundation of its reputation,” says Rob Jekielek, a principal consultant at RI.

This year, Jean Coutu Group emerged with the highest score, 78.95 out of a possible 100. The drugstore chain is a relative unknown outside its home of Quebec, but there, the founder is a familiar, grandfatherly icon who, along with his youngest son and current CEO, François, was inducted into Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends last year. (Read more about the Jean Coutu brand on page 42.)

Last year’s winner, Tim Hortons, came in a close second. The coffee chain’s drop in score is part of a wider trend that Canada’s big brands saw this year, according to the institute’s research. Across the list, almost all the companies experienced a slip in their reputation ratings compared to 2010. Only five avoided a fall, essentially maintaining their ratings from 2010, which caused their overall rankings to rise. Jekielek speculates that this slump is due to the fading of the “halo effect” from last year’s Vancouver Olympics, as the goodwill and patriotism that elevated ratings last year slowly evaporated, and scores returned roughly to 2009 levels. Last year, Tim Hortons scored a rating of 83.22, but this year, no company broke into the 80s.

One brand that benefited from the overall drop is Shoppers Drug Mart, which soared to third place from last year’s 11th spot, despite an almost identical rating. “Shoppers tends to be a Top Five company, but last year was a low point for them with the fight for generic drugs,” says Susan Quinn-Mullins, a senior adviser to the Research Institute. She speculates that the company strengthened its bonds with customers by taking a stand against Big Pharma. “Taking on the government and threatening to withdraw services—clearly that wasn’t seen negatively by people,” she says.

Like Shoppers, WestJet managed to ascend in the rankings by almost standing still because of others brands’ plunging scores. The company does a good job at what the institute calls “enterprise thinking,” meaning that on top of providing customers a great service that they appreciate, consumers have a good feeling about WestJet as a corporation.

Research In Motion is one company on the list that the Reputation Institute thinks could improve its brand’s appeal to Canadians. “RIM has a real opportunity to get people emotionally involved and feeling passionate about the company, because they have a strong business foundation and credibility,” says Jekielek. But for RIM, building a specifically Canadian brand has never been a priority. As a result, it scored highest in categories like products, innovation and leadership, but rated lower on trust, esteem and admiration.

Canada’s big banks all saw drops in their reputation this year, and that may have been caused by a different kind of fading enthusiasm. “Perhaps some of the halo around Canadian banking post-recession is wearing off,” says Quinn-Mullins.

Equally revealing are the names at the bottom of the list of 50—a gutter that tends to be disproportionately filled with energy outfits and telecom operators. “These companies under the 60-point mark are all in a difficult place with substantial [consumer] skepticism,” says Jekielek.

The Reputation Institute, which did similar surveys worldwide, believes all Canadian companies could improve upon getting more buzz, especially through social media. “They too often think that if someone is writing about them, it will be negative and that’s what people will remember,” says Jekielek. “But we’ve found people who’ve heard about companies from others view them either on par or more favourably.”