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Where Do You Rank?
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Where Do You Rank?

Does our rank-everything culture make marketing easier or defeat it?

A fiend of mine once said that strong brands have three characteristics: They’re distinctive, relevant and consistent, with “distinctive” the most elusive of the triumvirate. Marketers are always searching for the next new thing that will separate their brand from the pack, and one way to do that is to validate how special they truly are with a third-party endorsement.

Is your company a best place to work? Maybe it’s a best place to work for women or for diversity. Could it be that you’re the best place to work in a certain industry, such as advertising? Or perhaps your workplace was named the best in a category like small convention and visitors bureaus in Minnesota (a category that actually exists).

It seems that everywhere you turn there is a “best of” award competition going on. While in the past the contests were usually limited to city magazines like our sister publication, Mpls.St.Paul, the phenomenon has spread to the corporate sector, where companies vie for honors that they can then use to promote themselves to current and prospective employees.

Before you invest time and effort in soliciting and marketing yourself to media and organizations that do this, ask yourself if being on a list with a hundred other companies is really going to make you all that distinctive.

The proliferation of rankings that once served to distinguish us is definitely a revenue booster for the media properties and organizations that sponsor such awards; as a result, what once was a differentiator is evolving into the trophy everybody gets for just participating.

What’s our obsession with the best? I think it’s our shorthand, bullet-point and Twitter mentality. Skimming a list of “bests” cuts down the time we have to spend really doing research. Going out for a quick bite? Do a check on TripAdvisor and Yelp to get the info at your fingertips.

We want to rank everything to see where we are and how our choices measure up.

You may, or may not, be happy to know that Minneapolis ranks as the best city for broke millennials, according to a real estate survey. Wow—all along I thought that Portland had that one sewed up. We’re also ranked among the best cities for recent college grads, and in June, 3M was named the most-desired company in a survey of millennials who are members of the National Society of High School Scholars, coming out ahead of tech darlings like Google and Apple.

Did you know that in 2015 Minnesota was ranked the No. 1 state for business by CNBC? Try selling that to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that constantly rails against the tax burden the state places on businesses and individuals. The CNBC analysis measured more than 60 variables in 10 categories: workforce, cost of doing business, infrastructure, economy, quality of life, technology and innovation, education, business friendliness, cost of living, and access to capital. Not all categories were rated equally important. So exactly who gets to decide and why?

CNBC said it solicited advice from business and policy experts, and government sources, as well as its own Global CFO Council, to come up with the criteria and weighting for the categories. But check with Forbes and you get a different list, where Minnesota ranks No. 13. ChiefExecutive.net puts us at No. 31. USA Today ranks us No. 10, and 24/7 Wall Street puts us at No. 5. You get the picture: different criteria, different weighting, different results.

The one-time magazine U.S. News and World Report has turned ranking into its primary niche, with books covering a variety of education-related categories, health, money, travel, cars and law. Colleges and universities are especially addicted to the publication’s annual ranking of schools, and almost every college and university in Minnesota touts its ranking on their website with appropriate spin. For example, Concordia University in St. Paul has the U.S. News and World Report “Best” logo on its website, noting that it placed in the category of online bachelor’s degree in 2013. But dig a little deeper and you find Concordia was tied for 79th.

The trouble with rankings, whether state business climates or colleges, is that everybody can create criteria and weigh results based on whatever they want.

Then there’s the question of how reliable the data actually are. Going back to the lists of college rankings, is there really that great a difference between, say, the No. 10 liberal arts college in the country and No. 15? Aren’t we really just splitting hairs here?

The bottom line is that no business wants to be at the bottom of a list unless it’s companies with the highest percentage of employee turnover or most health code violations. So do your due diligence to determine whether any list is one you want to show up on.

Glenn Karwoski (g.karwoski@creativepr.com ) is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage, a marketing communications agency. He also teaches in the graduate school at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.

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