Learning From the Winners: Common Factors Among FutureBrand Index High-flyers

The retirement of Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer, is interesting. A textbook all-rounder, Weed always understood the importance of brand purpose, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion. Crucially, he also knew these priorities had to run through the heart of Unilever, not just act as headlines for its marketing efforts.

The difference between the best company leaders and the rest is that the good ones really get what their brand means, just like Weed always has, and they bring its full potential to bear across all their company’s activities.

This is an insight that can make all the difference – and it’s one that is shared by the best performers in the 2018 FutureBrand Index.


Index high-fliers

Every two years, FutureBrand takes PWC’s list of the world’s top 100 companies by market capitalisation and asks a global audience of 3,000 informed consumers to assess them across a range of attributes. This produces a ranking of how future-proofed these firms are.

In the 2018 Index, the five fastest-rising firms were: Sinopec, GlaxoSmithKline, Verizon, China Life Insurance and Anheuser-Busch InBev.

On the face of it, there might seem little to connect a petrochemical company and a financial services firm from China, a UK pharmaceutical giant, a US telco and a Belgian drinks manufacturer. But a closer look reveals common factors that add up to nothing less than a manifesto for any C-suite looking to futureproof its business.


Focus first

First, these are brands with focus. There’s no doubt about what they stand for or where they’re going.

Since becoming GSK’s CEO in 2017, Emma Walmsley has been working hard to sharpen up Britain’s biggest pharmaceutical company. She’s refocused its portfolio, made some canny acquisitions and divestments, and announced plans for a new £10bn consumer healthcare joint venture with Pfizer.

Walmsley champions a culture of smart risk-taking, accountable decision-making, and transparency and accountability. It’s all helped to turn GSK into a business that’s perceived as being crystal-clear about the course it’s on.

Sinopec, the biggest climber in the Index, scored well in attributes such as mission, indispensability, and authenticity. It’s perceived to be acting ethically to maintain a sustainable environment – that’s huge for any oil and gas company.


The courage to reinvent

Sinopec’s focus on sustainability highlights the second characteristic these brands share: being brave enough to reinvent themselves. Sinopec is pushing the climate change agenda, with the chairman of its investment arm speaking about ‘embracing electrification and working towards a greener future to halt the effects of global warming and its threat to life’. Reinventions don’t get much more fundamental than that.

China Life has effectively reinvented the marketing function. It’s invested heavily in digitisation, teaming up with Chinese internet search giant Baidu to invest US$1 billion in artificial intelligence, blockchain and other start-ups, and using the new technology to boost sales to remote areas and manage risk.

Verizon has also done a great job of repositioning itself, from being an old-fashioned phone and network company to be seen today as a leading cloud-based modern tech company that’s at the vanguard of bringing 5G to the US.


Innovation and purpose

That takes us to the other key common denominators shared by the Index’s best performers: innovation and – most important of all – purpose.

Verizon is a mature company that’s moved into tech in a more enlightened manner than Facebook and some of the other kings of the digital era. It inspires a sense that it’s looking after us. It’s found a way to keep itself relevant without losing trust. It displays the wisdom of experience, demonstrating a clear sense of why it exists and the importance of making people’s lives better.

AB InBev has been working hard to build its capabilities in data, analytics, automation and AI, and is actively exploring technologies such as blockchain and VR – all geared towards improving market insight. It’s used these insights to diversify well, now boasting a huge array of globally recognised brands.

This is a brand that knows what it stands for, it’s well focused and it has premiumised cleverly. In short, it’s avoiding banality – that scourge of well-established western global brands – through focus and innovation.

GSK’s purpose is unambiguous: to help people do more, feel better and live longer. Its goal is to be one of the world’s most innovative, best performing and trusted healthcare companies and all three of its current businesses – consumer healthcare, vaccines, and pharmaceuticals – live or die on the quality of their innovation.

Along with the Index’s other high-scoring Chinese companies, China Life Insurance is built on three pillars: technology and innovation, craft and quality, and traditional values that prioritize the long-term over the short – constant evolution, respect, harmony and wellbeing. These values feel innately human.


Delivering on purpose

These companies all demonstrably deliver on their purpose. In the past, it might have been good enough to just talk about it a lot. Not anymore. Now you must also deliver in every facet of your business activities, internally and externally – and you must be seen to be doing so.

For all the complexity of their global businesses, and the many huge differences between them, our Index leaders all demonstrate a simple truth: to position yourself well for an uncertain future, you must connect the experiences you create with your wider corporate purpose.

Jon Tipple is the Chief Strategy Officer at FutureBrand, a global brand consultancy.

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