What makes a company “most admired?”
That’s a question posed by Fortune magazine every year, and in scanning the results of its current survey, it seems that “admiration” is really more about “popularity.”
Or at least admiration in the sense of outright envy.
That analysis makes sense when you consider that Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies” list wasn’t compiled by asking customers and consumers about their perceptions of the business models of the corporate giants that dominate virtually every sector of the economy. No, the survey was conducted among senior executives and investment analysts.
I recognize that those folks are the publication’s core audience, but they’re hardly the cohort that should be tasked with defining which organization is worthy of genuine admiration.
Take a look at the top 10 companies on the list (in order): Apple, Google, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, Walt Disney, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, FedEx, Nike and GE.
What’s the common denominator among those firms?
It isn’t admiration, it’s performance.
Let’s say you just won the lottery. If you had to compile a list of blue-chip companies worthy of your newly acquired bankroll, that top ten represents some pretty solid choices for where you might direct your investment portfolio for maximum return.
And isn’t that what the business community admires the most?
Where are the food companies?
So what about food companies? Arguably, they provide the most fundamental “consumer goods” that we all need, we all purchase and we all consume on a daily basis. The ones who do their job exceptionally well ought to be highly admired, right?
Of the 340 companies spanning 54 industries that were included in the survey, only a dozen food and beverage companies made it onto the list. Coca-Cola (No. 15), Nestle (No. 38), Unilever (No. 41) and PepsiCo (No. 44) were ranked among the 50 companies.
Ask the average shopper in the supermarket about their admiration for Coke, Pepsi and Nestle — nobody would have a clue who or what Unilever is — and they’d likely acknowledge that some of those companies’ products are well-liked snack (“junk?”) foods. But admiration?
Not so much.
Even worse, Fortune’s list of the most admired companies is larded with financial investment firms, pharmaceutical companies, for-profit health care providers, banking groups, oil companies and — seriously? — cable companies.
C’mon. Are you kidding me? Find me a single person with a discernible pulse and not under the influence of mind-altering drugs who would proclaim their admiration for drug companies that continue gouging patients, big banks that charge fees every time a customer so much as sneezes or the Wall Street firms that wrecked the economy.
Consider that while Whole Foods Markets made the list, they were ranked behind Goldman Sachs. Even the proverbial hermit who actually has been living in a cave since 2008 knows that Goldman Sachs was the poster boy for the reckless financial-sector speculation that triggered the Great Recession from which the U.S. economy has only lately begun to emerge.
And let’s not even ask the question whether people admire their cable providers. As the good guys in pretty much every action-adventure movie love to say, “Don’t insult my intelligence.”
Although Fortune’s editors went to great pains to talk about how they ranked companies on the basis of Social Responsibility, there were few representatives on the list that truly funneled significant organizational energy into socially responsible initiatives.
Everyone talks a good game about being socially responsible, just like most companies embrace “diversity, equity and inclusion” in their corporate reports and PR pronouncements.
Usually not so much in where they place their business priorities, however.
Given that food processors and marketers other than companies earning profits by peddling junk foods seem to be absent from Fortune’s admiration list, it might be time not only to re-examine how those firms position themselves, but to take a step back and consider how the public might be persuaded to better appreciate the safe, wholesome and affordable food supply we all take totally for granted.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator