TORONTO — Wednesday marks the 10th edition of Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day in support of mental health initiatives, an event that has become one of the country’s best-known examples of corporate outreach.
Bell has donated more than $100 million toward research, community groups and other organizations during the past decade and has drawn praise for its efforts to combat the stigma of mental illness. The annual event has also been a target for critics of Bell, who have called on the company to focus on the well-being of its own employees.
The recognition has likely been a net positive, but experts say it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much corporate sponsorships contribute to a brand and reputational value, even for something as comprehensive as Bell’s efforts on mental health.
Social responsibility campaigns have relatively little impact on a brand’s overall reputation in the eyes of consumers, says Dave Scholz, a communications researcher and partner at Leger, where he compiles their annual corporate reputation ranking.
“There is some effect,” Scholz says. “It’s just not as large … as what we perceive their quality and services to be.”
Whether it is attracting employees or selling a product, Scholz says reputation is key: people want to be associated with an organization with a strong reputation.
“That means we’re more likely to want to work there. It means we’re more likely to want to acquire or use or buy their product, or service.”
Bell was ranked 260 out of 300 in Leger’s 2019 analysis — last of four telecom companies on the list, after Telus (94), Shaw (148) and Rogers (186).
In contrast to the Leger reputation ranking, Bell placed well in a 2019 ranking of Canada’s most valuable brands — with an estimated worth of $13.3 billion, it ranked third, behind the country’s two largest banks (Royal Bank of Canada at $23 billion and TD at $20.1 billion).
How much of that value can be attributed to charitable giving is hard to measure, says Paul Gareau, senior vice-president for brand and content at Kantar.
“I don’t have any data on that. I wish I did, because it’s such a great initiative,” Gareau says.
Gareau says the long-term nature of Bell’s campaign seems likely to resonate with consumers.
“The Bell Let’s Talk platform … is a super, super example of how a brand can start a movement and connect with people.”
Gareau says people are willing to pay a premium for highly respected brands and strong brands are more likely to grow in the future.
However, he says, Let’s Talk Day is only one component of Bell’s overall brand value and not “essential” to everything the company does.
“I can see how some people’s reaction would be: ‘Let’s Talk’ is great but that’s not what’s driving your overall behaviour as an organization.”
In fact, there are persistent complaints from people who have worked at Bell or one of the other companies within the BCE group.
A man told the BCE’s shareholder meeting last May, for instance, that he was badly treated by Bell when he was among about 70 people who were laid off — apparently in error — then recalled.
“I was kicked out and I wasn’t told what my fault was,” he said. “I have two kids. How do I answer to them? How? What do I tell my wife? What do I do? Help me! Is that what Bell Let’s Talk means?”
After listening for several minutes until the man finished, then-chief executive George Cope — who retired this month — thanked the man without much elaboration.
“I think no one can personally comment on someone who’s been asked to not work here anymore. So I think your emotions and your comment, we’re just going to have to respect them. Thank you,” Cope said.
Mary Deacon, who has chaired Let’s Talk Day since its inception, concedes that it has received criticism — although she says there’s more positive feedback than negative from employees.
“We won’t always get it right but we are making a very concerted effort to improve constantly,” Deacon says.
Deacon says it has also worked internally to build supports, services, benefits for its 50,000 employees in addition to the more public-facing billboards, social media discussion and advocacy.
“The experience is much, much better. We are not perfect. But we’re always learning and improving and we’re on that journey.”
David Paddon , The Canadian Press