Why the BRICs are in the place they are

Companies from the world’s coming generation of powerhouse economies – the so-called BRICs – propped up this year’s FT Bowen Craggs Index. But they have much to build on, says David Bowen.

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The new FT Bowen Craggs Index has a majority of sites from the US and Europe. However, a third come from elsewhere, including the giant economies sometimes known as BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China. As market capitalisation in the FT Global 500 is used as the basis for the table, it now features seven Chinese groups (against one last year) as well as four Russian and two Brazilian companies. To cover the field, I have also been looking at two Indian groups that do not feature in the Index.
At first sight, the news is not great for BRICs. The bottom six places go to Russian or Chinese companies, while the best performer of the group, Brazil’s Petrobras, comes 47 of 75. But closer examination reveals differences across the online BRICs world, and signs that we will see at least some companies making a great leap forward.

Home sets the tone

In the Index we look at three broad areas: how well the site is built, the messages it transmits (brand in the broad sense) and how well it serves different groups.
Branding is a good place to start, because we can see immediately from the home page whether the company is taking the web seriously. Sberbank, the Russian savings bank, and China Mobile have sites that look as though they come from the earliest days of the web – I suspect they have been cobbled together by the IT department and are utilitarian, to put it at its kindest.
Look now at the Brazilians: Vale is as slick and pretty as any site in the Index; Petrobras looks good, with an unusual ‘crayon’ effect distinguishing the animated header. The Indians look professional, too: Tata and Reliance Industries, the biggest industrial groups, have modern sites that have clearly absorbed considerable resources.
It seems, then, that the BRICs need splitting – Russia and China don’t get the web, while Brazil and India do. But that would be too simplistic. For a start, there is a clue that things are changing in China. If you look at chinamobile.com, you see a much slicker site – it belongs to China Mobile Communications Corp, which is the majority owner of China Mobile Ltd, but is state-owned and does not, therefore, feature in the FT’s list of quoted companies. There are plenty of links between the two, however, and I would be amazed if the new look does not spread to the Ltd site.
The dour Russian look is, to me, at least partly cultural – it may appear very old-fashioned to western eyes, but it is just the way things look in Russia (which is not to say it should not be adjusted, because the web is worldwide). Interestingly, Gazprom has been redesigned in the past year but it still comes from another age. There was once a Russian group with more western looks, called Yukos, but it has disappeared along with the company… anyway it was clear that Yukos was using the site to appeal to the western world, so it is not surprising it took the care to appeal to its sensibilities.

Too in love with technology

Moving to the construction side, the story is rather different. Again, there are some companies at the bottom of the list that have just thrown sites together – Sberbank is a nightmare to move around, for example. But Industrial & Commercial Bank of China is well into the top half of the table on the construction metric, with China Construction and Rosneft hitting average scores. Here, it is some of the more elaborate BRICs sites that are letting the side down – and that could be tricky to fix.
One of the problems is the over-use of technology for its own sake. Five years ago, western companies were busy putting Flash animation up for the sake of it, but most have now desisted. Vale’s previous site (when it was CVRD) was a big sinner here, but the new site is much less gimmicky. But oh dear, try loading Reliance Industries, and even with a broadband connection you are in for what used to be called the ‘world wide wait’ – the resulting effect may be mildly intriguing, but it’s not worth the effort. Even worse is the new China Mobile home page – let’s hope it drops its quite unnecessary Flash before absorbing the Ltd site.
Reliance’s over-use of Flash is both irritating and a barrier to usability. Click the ‘plus’ sign on the home page and a panel pops up with extra navigation options – why, and how, should we know what the ‘plus’ means? Site builders in love with their technology must not be allowed to get in the way of common sense.
There are also problems among the slick sites in the way they are held together. It is frustrating when a site that looks good turns out to be next to unusable. The Americans are the usual suspects here (Verizon, Bank of America, even Google), but Tata seems to have similar failings. Despite a clean-looking top-level navigation structure, digging down into the content leads to difficulties, with in-text links jumping off to new pages and no clear way of moving around or seeing where you are in the site. This is almost certainly a sign that no one has overall control of the site – which speaks of decentralisation, but not well-managed decentralisation.

Content in short supply

Many of the points lost by BRICs sites come from content that is just too thin. Russian companies tend to have very little for job seekers – there is no obvious institutional reason for this, simply that the companies do not see the need (this is one area where Sberbank shows the others up).
The ‘Serving society’ scores – mainly covering social responsibility – also tend to be low, with sustainability reports starting to appear but little of the richness the best sites possess. An exception is Petrobras, which has some excellent material – though sadly much if it has been lost in a complex migration from one global site to another (I hope it finds its way back in for next year).
It’s clear that some of these companies regard their web site principally as a way of communicating with investors, although they do not always do so in a smooth way. The China Mobile Ltd site is aimed purely at investors, but is very basic in its presentation, while the Russians and Chinese still provide most documents in PDF only – adequate for some, but not easy to use or search, and certainly not best practice.
A different form of weakness is shown by Tata, which has nice presentation but really thin content – surprising for a group with such a high international profile. The one company that is up with the leaders is Vale, whose comprehensive investor section puts it as number 11 in the Index when ranked on this metric.
Overall, then, the BRICs sites have a set of strengths and weaknesses similar to those European and US sites had five or even 10 years ago. The question now is whether they will set to correcting the problems in the same diligent way. I will be surprised if they do not.

First published 16 April, 2008
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