By any measure 2022 was a tumultuous year, with companies grappling with mass layoffs, market volatility and macroeconomic uncertainty. And while 2023 has had its fair share of upheaval, the latest data from the Signal AI 500 global reputation rankings points to a marked return to optimism. 

The 2023 Signal AI 500, which uses big data and artificial intelligence to benchmark conversation about the world’s most talked-about companies, shows a shift away from doom and gloom. Across the three pillars of corporate reputation that underlie the rankings — innovation, purpose and performance — net positivity (the volume of mentions with positive sentiment) has grown steadily since the start of the year.

What’s driving this change in the discourse? The 2023 Signal AI 500 findings reveal positive sentiment is being fueled by a few key factors, including excitement about tech innovations, interest in purpose-driven sustainability initiatives and compelling business growth stories.

Innovation: Fresh technologies spark fresh conversations

Generative AI has had a breakout year and sparked a tremendous amount of innovation-related conversation in 2023. However, it’s by no means been the only fresh tech to inspire excitement and influence corporate reputation. Augmented reality saw a 79% jump in mentions following the unveiling of Apple’s Vision Pro headset, with the firm’s inventive approach driving the AR/VR discussion to expand beyond the narrow metaverse focus of the past few years.

MarTech/AdTech has also seen a major spike in mentions (+60%), as a host of transformational trends — including the rise of AI and machine learning, continuing changes to data availability and rapidly evolving audience behaviors — have spurred marketers to explore innovative solutions and pushed established players such as Meta to revamp their offerings. Despite the perennial chatter that advertising is losing its might, it still represents a major strategic bet for many industries seeking profitability, including those that have historically shunned it, like VOD streaming.

Purpose: Sustainability takes center stage

The discourse around purpose largely centered on culture-related topics such as layoffs and return-to-office mandates in 2022 and early 2023, as companies and their employees struggled with post-pandemic challenges.

Those somber conversations have tempered as this year has progressed, making room for another storyline to take center stage: sustainability (+41% growth in purpose-related share of voice). These discussions haven’t always been easy for high-profile firms — as S&P notes, many are navigating a “delicate balancing act” between short- and long-term goals — but they’ve been integral to moving corporate sustainability away from superficial greenwashing and towards measurable actions.

One topic in particular that’s been central to the sustainability conversation in 2023 and key to driving corporate reputation has been sustainable manufacturing. L’Oréal has been one of those at the forefront of this discussion, with the beauty brand making bold sustainability commitments across its supply chain and creating its own venture capital fund to invest in startups whose technologies can help it meet these goals.

Puma has also been lauded for its sustainable manufacturing initiatives as it’s changed the materials it uses in its products, reimagined its approach to sourcing and launched Voices of a RE-GENERATION — a project in which young environmentalists collaborate with the footwear and apparel brand on its sustainability strategy.

Performance: Building reputation with social impact and strong growth

Some brands have burnished their reputations in 2023 by intertwining purpose with performance. For example, REI has sought to encourage both innovation and social change through efforts such as Path Ahead Ventures, which invests in outdoor-focused startups founded by people of color. This strategy has boosted the retailer’s place in the Signal AI 500 performance rankings, driven positive sentiment and earned it the top spot in Forbes’ list of best brands for social impact.

Of course, performance still fundamentally comes down to the bottom line. And that discourse has shifted significantly this year: Whereas 2022 was largely about how companies were navigating tough challenges such as inflation, strong growth stories are now elevating a number of reputations. Singapore Airlines is one of these standouts, with the business earning plaudits for reporting a record profit and then rewarding its employees with a massive bonus.

Caterpillar has also gained notice for its results. In addition to delivering a 22% year-over-year jump in revenue, the equipment manufacturer has returned more than $2 billion to shareholders. Fittingly, Caterpillar’s success has been powered in part by two of the other key reputational trends of 2023 — tech innovation and sustainability: The company released a comprehensive mobile app that makes finding support and ordering parts easier for customers, and it has focused intently on creating new processes and products that reduce environmental impact.

Check out the full Signal AI 500 rankings here.