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Rank a Brand vs. RSM business students: 11 ideas

Here’s an experiment: 54 master students from the Rotterdam School of Management, specializing in business and sustainability, do brand research for Rank a Brand and investigate its methodology and operations for a few weeks. Then they present their findings. Will this yield any useful insights to Rank a Brand? Do Rank a Brand’s activities even hold up to such intensive scrutiny?

As you may have guessed, we have just conducted said experiment. Multiple student teams from the master Global Business and Sustainability at the Rotterdam School of Management helped rank the telecom sector as part of the course Sustainability & Behavioural Ethics. Meanwhile they investigated how fair Rank a Brand’s ranking system is, whether rankings are based on the ‘right’ values, how Rank a Brand might best treat its stakeholders, and much more.

Their general conclusion: Rank a Brand’s work is well-researched, crucial to creating consumer awareness, and invaluable in pressuring brands to become more sustainable. But, clearly, the road toward truly sustainable production and consumption is still long. That is why students came up with numerous ideas to help Rank a Brand accomplish its mission. Here’s an impression:

      1. Rank a Brand aims to expand to other countries, and thus to other cultures. But could there be valid differences in how cultures view sustainability? A cross-cultural dialogue could be useful to probe whether Rank a Brand’s assessment of sustainability is culturally biased and needs to be adjusted per culture.
      2. Rank a Brand is not alone in assessing sustainability. Other examples are the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the Corporate Knights’ G100, Good Guide and B Corps. Not surprisingly, these assessments sometimes diverge. Why is this, and could a collaborative effort overcome this?
      3. Rank a Brand evaluates a brand’s climate protection policy, environmental policy and labour conditions. This squarely covers some of the most important sustainability issues. However, there are other areas that are interesting in this respect. For example: should economic sustainability also be covered? Criteria in this area could be covering, among other topics, whether or not a brand avoids taxes.
      4. To what extent should brands be able to compensate low scores in certain areas with high scores in others? For example, if a brand is suspected to employ children, should positive practices such as using renewable energy or recycling waste still be fully rewarded?
      5. Rank a Brand’s A- to E-ratings, while neat, might be confounded with the American grade system or hide the fact that, say, two C-ratings sometimes differ more in their ranking than a C- and D-rating. An alternative could be the less ambiguous five-leaves system.  Furthermore, when hovering one’s mouse cursor over a brand’s ranking, a pop-up window could display separate scores for carbon emissions, environmental policy and labour conditions.
      6. Rank a Brand values transparency: Brands that disclose no sustainability information will invariably receive the lowest ranking. While this encourages transparency, it may disadvantage smaller brands with limited resources to publish such information. What about sending such brands templates so they only need to fill out the required information to receive an accurate ranking?
      7. In a similar vein, Rank a Brand could be more transparent about how its own ranking criteria are established. Sustainability domains are selected from, among others, the Global Reporting Initiative, but how is optimal coverage of these domains determined? And how is decided for each domain which codes and guidelines are sufficiently reliable to be used for the rankings? One way to increase transparency is to send brands an advance notice of new ranking questions.
      8. Brands that are already deeply committed to sustainability probably care about more than just their ranking. What else can Rank a Brand offer them? An industry report with the latest ranking developments, perhaps? Or maybe these brands are willing to share some inside information to further improve the ranking process?
      9. As Rank a Brand grows in size, more formal regulatory procedures may become necessary. Auditing comes to mind, as does adopting codified ethics for non-profit organizations. For example, it could be explicitly stated that rankers have no conflicts of interest.
      10. For Rank a Brand as a non-profit organization, it is an open question how to measure its impact or added value. Statistics such as number of website visitors and brands ranked measure this only by approximation. An interesting KPI could therefore be how many brands receive a higher ranking than the year before. A problem, though, is that higher rankings may also result from other factors than Rank a Brand’s activities.
      11. After visiting Rank a Brand’s website, consumers may have the best intentions to buy sustainable brands, but when push comes to shove, they may not always do so. To make sure good intentions translate more often into actual behavior, Rank a Brand could release a browser extension that allows consumers to see the rankings of brands when surfing—or even shopping—online.

Without a doubt, receiving all these ideas from so many highly critical and bright students is a bit like a swarm of bees in an orchard: very fruitful. And, surely, as we are designing our new website and planning a major overhaul of our Wiki covering our ranking criteria, each idea will be seriously considered. That does not imply, of course, that our experimenting with seeking advice is limited to consulting business students. So, dear reader, linger not, and feel encouraged to share your thoughts!

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