Brand and reputation are tightly linked but not synonyms. I raise this because I seem to be having more and more conversations where brand projects are being renamed as reputation projects to make them more “palatable” internally. That in itself says a lot about what senior management think brand is and why they believe it’s not what they need.
It’s commonplace to talk about having a brand and having a reputation, but in reality of course neither exists as a physical asset – and I suspect that this shared intangibility has fueled the belief that they are one and the same thing. They also share approaches and goals. Both are shaped by communications and both seek to improve perceptions.
For me, a brand functions as a multiplier. It generates desire and differentiation and motivates buyers to pay more for your products than they might otherwise. Reputation is the sum total of your track record. It is the accumulation of your actions and statements to date. So while you build brands in order to get the most return from them, you protect reputation in order to preserve credibility and trust. Brand is proactive. Reputation is defensive. Both are important. Each can be damaged – and the fallout will affect both. As Warren Buffett once observed about reputation: “A great reputation is like virginity – ‘it can be preserved but it can’t be restored.”
This insightful Sloan Review article makes another succinct comparison: “brand is a “customer-centric” concept … Reputation is a “company-centric” concept … brand is about relevancy and differentiation … and reputation is about legitimacy”. Nicely put.
Ideally in my view you build a brand and a business on the back of a strong reputation, and you use the credibility and consistency of your reputation to attract the people, the investors, the leaders, the media interest and the stakeholder support needed to resource the organization and its brand(s).
Overlaps complicate this relatively straight-forward arrangement: brands are increasingly judged on their back office – on the ways they do business and on the supply chains they use, on the leaders they attract and on who they are associated with – and our awareness (another shared idea between brand and reputation) of brand and organizational actions has been exponentially heightened by social media to the point where they are often fused. The brand is what the organization is.
But the dangers of focusing on one at the expense of, or in place of, the other are captured perfectly in the Sloan Review article: “Focusing on reputation at the expense of brand can lead to product offerings that languish in the market. On the other hand, concentrating on brand and neglecting reputation can be equally dangerous, resulting in a lower stock price, difficulties in attracting top talent and even product boycotts … A strong brand does not necessarily equate with a good reputation. On the other hand, a solid reputation does not always result in a strong brand.”
So you can have market presence and awareness without necessarily being liked or trusted. And you can be liked and trusted by those who know you, but remain largely unknown beyond that restricted circle. In both cases, the brand is under-powered and this will affect its ability to contribute as meaningfully and significantly as it should to profitability and business growth.
Which leads back to where this piece started. I suspect that many senior managers focus on reputation because it impacts directly on how people talk about the organizations they run, so it is something that matters to them professionally. No-one wants to have worked at a tainted organization. But because they do not perceive brands as part of their day to day responsibilities, brand can be seen as something that is narrowly defined and part of operations.
Marketers need to fundamentally shift the viewpoint of senior colleagues away from the belief that brand is an impression that outsiders have of the organization and towards one where brand is seen as a direct expression of strategy and growth plans.
Brand needs to be seen as something all leaders have responsibility for because it is something they drive together. Reputation on the other end needs to be positioned not as “marketing” (how people talk about us) but much more accurately as acknowledgement, in the sense of what the organization is known and respected for.
For that to happen, marketing and corporate communications teams (and their respective agencies) need to spend less time squabbling over mandate and more time integrating their strategies and working to educate senior managers on their joint and collective worth as disciplined teams.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. Because changes in brand and reputation are often highly correlated (60 – 90%), Hill + Knowlton advocate a four-step process:
1. Identify key attributes for brands
2. Identify key attributes for reputation
3. Identify key stakeholders
4. Survey stakeholders regularly and monitor differences in attribute ratings over time to pinpoint potential threats to brand and reputation
To which I would add a final and crucial step:
5. Tease out correlations to show how reputation is impacting brand, how brand is enhancing reputation, and the effect of both on growth patterns. “When stakeholders say this … this is how it affects our brands … and as a result this is what happens in the business …”
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