Perception vs. Reality

Posted on March 11, 2010 by Comments Off

As much as we like to think that one voice can be the catalyst for change – and in rare instances it can be – the reality is that true momentum of any sort requires more than one single player.

So last week, when Disney CEO, Robert Iger proclaimed at the WSJ ECO:nomics conference that he wants his “to be the most admired company in the world,” and sustainability would play a central role in defining Disney’s image, the room must have felt the jolt of the triple bottom line movement moving an inch or two forward.

And yet, as much as I want to applaud Iger’s recognition that sustainability has a vital place in his corporate structure, I still felt compelled to do my own research to see exactly what his environmental council will be monitoring, and wondering if any of the millions of people who visit just one of his theme parks every year are actually going to be touched by these initiatives.

Unfortunately, in the sustainability world, the disparity between perception and action is just so great that the weight of the movement can, in many cases, over power the individual commitment. It is far too easy for a company to grab credit by association or by mimicking genuine leaders without putting real resources behind initiatives that must work from the top down, as well as the bottom up.

In a recent Maddock Douglas sustainability mapping study, where companies were measured on their climate footprint, showing a reduction in their impact on global warming, support of progressive climate legislation and public disclosure of their climate actions clearly and comprehensively, Disney received a perceived sustainable brand image rating of 63 and an actual of 47. For comparison, Wendy’s International received a perceived of 64 and an actual of 2 whereas Toshiba has a perceived of 34 and an actual of 71.

In a similar vein, the much-vaunted Apple recently held their board of directors meeting and ended up dismissing two shareholder sustainability initiatives – a sustainability report and a sustainability committee. The reason? As Steve Jobs stated, “while other companies just make promises,” Apple actually gets the job done by working directly with suppliers.

So… back to the Maddock Douglas perception audit.

Apple has a perceived sustainable brand image rating of 68 and an actual of 52. Not nearly as far apart as others on the list, but a gap, nonetheless, and when you look at the sustainability perception of both Apply and Disney, they are almost equal.

On the one hand, you have a company who is setting up boards, creating measurement reports, speaking at conferences (Disney) and on the other, one that is about action, meeting with suppliers and getting the work done (Apple) – but at the end of the day, the perception is almost the same.

Does that mean then, that the ‘halo’ effect that comes with perceived sustainability is enough to keep the movement momentum going while brands take those necessary baby steps – in whatever way they may be – in the right direction?

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