Published May 28, 2021
When the pandemic tossed millions of people from their offices last year, many companies relied on Microsoft to help figure out how to work from home.
Microsoft Teams, the company’s business communications app, reportedly now has 145-million daily active users, up from just 32 million at the start of the pandemic. It was the key tool Lisa Gibson and her team recommended to help their clients work and learn remotely.
Gibson, who is business manager and head of communications for Microsoft Canada, says customers all have their own unique needs, and it is her company’s job to understand what will work best for each. The ability to act upon consumer feedback is part of what has made Microsoft into a trailblazer, Gibson says.
“It’s not about coming into a conversation with the customer, thinking you know all the answers,” she says. “It’s really trying to learn from them about what they need.”
Indeed, Microsoft has made myriad upgrades to Teams as its popularity has skyrocketed, including features to celebrate colleagues’ accomplishments and a virtual “commute” that offers uninterrupted time at the start and end of the day. This constant iteration is part of what landed Microsoft in the second spot on Report on Business’s inaugural ranking of the best business-to-business brands in Canada, just behind Shopify. Among the 406 Canadian executives (68% of them at the vice-president level or above) surveyed by market research firm Ipsos in partnership with The Globe and Mail, Microsoft received the highest marks for being trusted more than other companies in its sector. It was also ahead of many competitors in leading a digital transformation, offering unique tools and technology.
Overall, the ranking covered 74 companies in seven different sectors to define what B2B excellence looks like today. The language, wording and overall themes of the survey were refined through interviews with an advisory group of 10 executives. “Insights obtained from the interviews ensured our study captured the most critical and relevant issues for Canadian executives,” says Mary Beth Barbour, senior vice-president at Ipsos.
Editor’s letter: Why we polled executives on the top business-to-business brands in Canada
Survey participants were asked about 10 randomly selected companies they were familiar with and whether 42 different statements, from being “more innovative than peers” to “allows employees to be themselves” to “demonstrated agility in COVID,” applied to those firms.
To aid in determining the brands’ individual strengths, Ipsos applied a model to classify various attributes by five broad categories. Different companies showed strength in different dimensions. For example, Shopify—our top company overall—was viewed by respondents as excelling at “trail-blazing,” meaning it ranked highly in areas related to digital transformation, innovation and growth. In comparison, seventh-place RBC received its highest marks for its efforts on community and charitable projects, making it a leader in “social responsibility.” Other firms, like 11th-place Deloitte Consulting, built their brands on “talent attraction,” or their skill in finding and retaining top employees, clients and leaders.
A dominant theme across the ranking was a high regard for companies leading the digital transformation of the economy, according to Barbour. To wit, the top six brands—Shopify, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Zoom and Slack—are all tech companies.
Like Microsoft’s Gibson, executives at other top-ranked firms say successful innovation is guided by customers’ needs. “This past year has shifted industry norms, how we use products, and increased the desire for more innovation,” says Ian Black, Shopify’s managing director of Canada, in an email interview. “As a leading commerce company, the key is to be user-obsessed or, as we call it, merchant-obsessed. At Shopify, everything on our product road map is directly correlated to a problem our merchants worldwide are facing.”
While Shopify is merchant-obsessed, Amazon Web Services Canada is guided by a principle of “customer obsession,” according to Eric Gales, the company’s country manager. That means understanding what is most important to consumers—and then giving it to them.
“Customers enjoy the fact that we really care about them and their business,” says Gales. “But it’s also very attractive to the people who work for us. People enjoy that philosophy and being part of a culture that really cares about customers.” In addition to ranking third overall, AWS was among the top five companies for many attributes of client engagement, such as being easy to work with, responsiveness and agility during the pandemic.
Gales says it’s been “really satisfying” to see the company support customers in the COVID-19 emergency.
Showing that kind of social responsibility was another common factor among many of the top-ranked companies. “When the pandemic is over, it’s likely that brands will not be judged on what they said, but what they did,” says Steve Levy, a senior leader at Ipsos.
Levy highlighted two brands—RBC and Telus—that scored well on social responsibility. Neither is the most innovative or fast-moving, but both worked to show support for Canadians through the tough times of the pandemic. Levy says that is what got them into the Top 10. “I suspect that when we look back, they will both be brands that we judge well and that I think this business community is already judging [well],” he says.
Telus has put more than $150 million toward COVID-19 efforts. Initiatives like Tech for Good (a program that provides specialized assistance, training and assistive technology to Canadians with disabilities) and Health for Good (which funds mobile health clinics) reflect the telecom’s commitment to supporting Canada’s vulnerable populations, says Navin Arora, who is president of Telus Business Solutions. “Doing good in our communities and doing well in business are mutually inclusive,” he says.
TD Bank similarly tries to find areas where its business interests intersect with societal good. It ranks second in the banking category behind RBC and ninth overall, just behind Telus. “Authenticity is finding those areas where we can both grow the business and contribute positively to society, and that is really, really impactful,” says Andrea Barrack, global head of ESG and corporate citizenship at TD. She says companies looking to build a strong brand should do more than simply pick “a flavour of the month” to support, but instead consider what matters most to both the business and its stakeholders.
Many brands likely earned respect for their actions over the past year. But others succeeded not because of recent events, but in spite of them. McKinsey & Co., which has faced multiple controversies (including advising U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on managing detention facilities under the Trump administration and drug company Purdue Pharma on ways to increase sales of the opioid OxyContin) was the top-ranked consulting company. The strength of McKinsey’s brand lies in the deep reservoir of trust it has, according to Levy.
Such a PR storm would be more difficult for brands newer to the market that don’t have McKinsey’s history, Levy says. Other large companies have made potentially brand-killing mistakes—for example, Samsung faced a scandal with its smartphones catching fire—but their strong equity has allowed them to work through the struggles
An often-overlooked component of a company’s brand is its ability to take care of its own employees. Shopify, the No. 1 company overall, was also tops on attributes like “allowing employees to be themselves” and having a desirable corporate culture. “We understand everyone’s journey here is different,” says Black. “We don’t hire people for what they can do—we hire for what we believe they can figure out. It’s up to each individual to figure out how to create the biggest impact at Shopify and help solve the biggest problems in commerce.”
Microsoft, meanwhile, received the highest scores of any company for both attracting and retaining top talent. Over the course of the pandemic, the firm has accommodated employees by offering paid leave for child or elderly care, wellness days and flexibility with timing and duration of meetings. “We’re empowered to work how, when and where we want and need to work, in order to do our best job,” says Gibson.
She says the company remains focused on improvement—of its culture, along with its technology. “We feel really good about our culture, being diverse and inclusive, and allowing people to be their authentic selves. But it’s something you’ve got to keep working at.”