Ever heard of Alltech? A year ago I hadn't. One year on and they are one of my most admired companies.
Alltech employ more than 3,000 people in 128 countries and are important players in the agri-food sector, helping farmers feed the world, raise healthy animals, and protect the environment through nutritional innovation. Their brand may not compare to the likes of Google, but we can all learn from Alltech when it comes to sustained reputation management and avoiding a reputation gap.
Most reputations are damaged because companies - even our most well-known brands - fail to operationally live up to the high expectations set by their PR and marketing activity. They talk the talk, but don't walk the walk.
Founded in Kentucky in 1980 by a proud and energetic Irishman Dr Pearse Lyons, Alltech has steadfastly focused on strategic growth that enhances its core business and its reputation. It has not sought publicity for publicity's sake outside its key market segments. Instead, it has sought to grow its position by being a true leader within an often misunderstood industry. And we can all learn from that...
Lesson one: encourage and engage in open debates
It hosts an annual symposium in Lexington, now in its 29th year, which brings together more than 2,300 delegates from 72 countries for the biggest agri-food gathering in the world. I was invited to speak at this year's event on the subject of crisis management, one of 20 sessions focused on how agribusiness can meet the challenge to produce enough food to feed three billion new urban dwellers, or nine billion people in total by 2050. What struck me about the event wasn't just the professionalism behind it, but that competitors were encouraged to attend. Alltech isn't a company that is closing down industry competitors, but providing a platform for them.
Lesson two: CSR should integrate with your core business
While in Lexington, I also visited the company's nearby facilities in Nicholasville and saw its commitment to research and development and the future of the industry. Their work is extraordinarily deep. They publish learned papers, provide annual regional and international awards to science students and invest in an academy scheme to provide graduates with the business skills required to flourish in the global agriculture and consumer health and food industries. They partner with the Smurfit Business School in Dublin to provide a tailored mini-MBA training programme for the company's senior executives, commit to the arts through scholarships at the University of Kentucky and provide philanthropic support to local communities and those who have faced significant problems - for example their founder flew to Haiti post-earthquake and invested in a distillery and coffee roasting operation to help sustain the local industry.
Lesson three: sponsorship must be targeted, consistent and multi-layered
Alltech's marketing is extremely focused on their core businesses, with a heavy bias for the prestigious world of equine. In 2010 they were title sponsors of the FEI World Equestrian Games (hosted in Lexington), and they continue that commitment in 2014 for the Games in Normandy, France. Given that most corporate sponsorships are poorly activated, Alltech stand out. They have multi-layered channels in place to market their involvement globally, providing a long-term business return.
Lesson four: long term commitment
It's their commitment to the long term that makes Alltech special. Many modern businesses take a short term approach to reputation and are willing to let a reputation gap form by putting their 'talk' ahead of operational reality. Good companies know that such gaps are dangerous. Good marketing and communications professionals don't encourage such risks to be taken.
Henry Ford once said that "you can't build a reputation on what you are going to do". Yet many companies try to expedite the process. Alltech have provided a blue print of how to do things the right way, working the channels that most matter to the business and its values. They have an exceptionally professional approach to all they do. Business leaders gravitate towards the 'coolest' or best known brands, yet it's much more realistic for business leaders to look to the likes of Alltech to learn how to increase a reputation for the long-term.