Partnering on reputation

I am still technically on vacation but catching up on a few things so I can face Monday. You know how that is. Now back to reputation.

A payoff of a good reputation that gets little attention is how good reputation attracts better business partners. When you think about all those mergers and acquisitions that steam up the marketplace, people forget to mention that likes attract (good reputation + good reputation = consolidation). A recent survey from Fortune Knowledge Group and Gyro:, an ad agency, found that 70% of business executives cite reputation as the most influential factor in choosing business partnerships. I liked how Business Insider spoke about a good reputation as a "validation stamp" that makes buyers feel more comfortable about coming together. Everyone uses those validation stamps today whether it is to help in purchasing products or finding a great new place to work. There is an entirely new industry built on validation stamps when you think about Yelp, TripAdvisor, Better Business Bureau and Amazon. 

When talking about choosing a business partner with a good reputation, senior executives who were surveyed say they focus on companies that have strong cultures (52%), respect for employees by management (50%), employee pride in the company's reputation (41%),  and management credibility among employees (39%).  Again and again, we see that the intangibles are becoming as important as the tangibles. In fact, the research found that senior executives are finding it hard to just depend on the tangibles today. About two-thirds (65%) of executives agree that an increasingly complex business environment has made it more difficult to base decisions on purely “functional” factors (for example, cost, quality, or efficiency). Instead, they are taking deeper looks at culture, reputation and values. Interesting to me that these latter three factors are fast-becoming the distinguishing competitive advantage that companies are seeking to meet their reputation-building and success goals. The world is changing before our eyes.

Last year, I recall looking at a few companies in an industry to compare and contrast how they communicated about themselves on their web sites. I remember how one company distinguished itself by having a tab devoted to its partners. The company told you all the universities they collaborate with, non-profits, NGOs, scientific councils, associations, etc.  It's a smart idea for adding even greater credibility to those validation stamps we all look for today when making a business decision. 

100% Amazon

Rating_Scale2-300x181I was taking a look at the new Harris Poll RQ study that was released this week. Reputations of U.S. companies are always important to review in order to see how companies or sectors are improving while others are declining. The survey has some reptuational nuggets worth sharing here. This year, 16% of the U.S. public said that the reputation of corporate America was improving, an increase of 7% over one year earlier. That is positive news despite the fact that 49% of consumers say it is declining. That is not a surprise because trust in business has reached its lowest depths over the past few years of economic decline. But it is a good sign that reputations are making somewhat of a comeback.

But what really has left me thinking twice is not the finding that is the most highly reputable company in America this year, a notch above Apple. What has me in a state of awesome disbelief is that Amazon earned nearly 100% positive ratings on all measures related to Trust and that among Americans who have discussed Amazon with their family and friends, nearly 100% of these conversations were positive about the online retailer. I have rarely, if ever, seen a company ever get that close to 100%. I've been conducting research for a long long time and this is an amazing feat. 100% satisfaction! A rarity.

The Harris Poll also found that more than 60% of consumers say that they now "proactively try to learn more about how a company conducts itself"  before they consider buying that company's products and services. Again, the world of reputation is seriously changing when people care this much about a company's treatment of employees, customers and communities. Values are increasingly playing a greater role in reputational perceptions and this market force is only going to continue. Mark my words.

Reputation Repair


Reputation mandate. The new CEO of Barclays made it clear to employees at the beginning of the year what it would now take to repair the bank's reputation and equally clear about what they did not want. The new CEO pointedly said in his memo to 140,000 employees that things were going to be different now and employees should know that..."The rules have changed. You won't feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won't feel comfortable with you as colleagues." Anthony Jenkins took over from CEO Robert Diamond who resigned when news broke out about Libor manipulation or rate-rigging.

Jenkins believes that the prior regime put short-term profits ahead of values.  Now that he was in charge, people have to commit to their reputation restoration program or hand in their IDs. Their program is called the TRANSFORM program and is based on living their values to restore Barclay's reputation, not just to restore their bottom line. As part of their rebuild, all employees viewed a film of the bank's history ("Made by Barclays"). Their new values and purpose, developed by their senior leadership group and Executive Committee along with many others, were also unveiled. Their Purpose is to help people achieve their ambitions "in the right way." Their five values are Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence and Stewardship. As this new program rolls out, people will be measured and rewarded according to these values. Sounds good. Ambitious. Doable. Will be watching.

Reputation's Moment

I was quoted by Fortune's Geoff Colvin in the August 15th issue. He wrote about the Murdoch scandal and mentioned how "large ideas emerging from this story so far will influence companies of all types for years to come." One of those large ideas is that we have officially arrived at the pivotal point where reputation has an edge over financial performance. As Geoff says, this is Reputation's Moment. Companies may not have fully noticed but reputation is indeed "the new currency of corporate success." Music to my ears. In the article, Colvin makes a few points that could not be truer. I excerpt some below which includes my take on reputation as the new metric of corporate success.

"Previous major scandals were mostly financial; the numbers were lies. Not this time. The damage so far derives en­tirely from behavior—phone hacking and possible police bribery—that ap­pears to be illegal but has nothing to do with reported financial results. Wheth­er it’s illegal doesn’t matter anyway; it’s slimy, and that’s enough. News Corp. is deeply tarnished, and the financial ef­fects could be significantly bad.

The company has lost about $5 bil­lion of value in the few weeks since the scandal hit. Longer-term effects could be much worse. “The greatest reputa­tional threat to News Corp., aside from criminal prosecution of Murdoch fam­ily members, lies within regulatory and policy circles,” says Rupert Younger, director of the Centre for Corporate Reputation at Oxford University’s Said Business School. News Corp.’s televi­sion businesses—TV networks, TV sta­tions, and satellite broadcasting ser­vices worldwide—are together a major source of profit, and they’re all subject to government regulation. Govern­ment leaders have treated News Corp. gingerly for years, but now “politicians who have been afraid to tackle such an important company are starting to feel that it may be possible to do so,” says Younger. “This could literally destroy News Corp.,” in the sense that the com­pany could be broken up.

Long-term damage to the company’s reputation among customers, employ­ees, communities, and others could also hurt. “In this new reputation economy, people care about whether a company shares the same values as they do,” ob­serves Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputa­tion strategist at the Weber Shandwick communications firm. Her reading on the scandal so far: “A clearer demon­stration of the direct relationship be­tween corporate reputation and cor­porate well-being is hard to imagine.”

 These two ideas, the one-man prob­lem and corporate reputation, are ob­viously related. At News Corp. they’re two sides of the same coin. Yet Rupert Murdoch never seemed to put them to­gether. Long before this scandal, he said, “Our reputation is more important than the last $100 million.” He was right.

 In this brave new recessionary world, we have evolved into a reputation economy where companies are trading on their reputations like never before. They are trading for better regulatory favor, more loyal customers, higher skilled talent, more positive word-of-mouth and more capital. Reputation has become an account in credit that you can draw down on or add to. In this new reputation economy, people care about how decisions are made and whether companies share the same values as they do. It is not just value, as in dollars earned, but also values, as in standards maintained, that has become a crucial element of corporate success.

Good Question

   Interesting article on what boards talk about when they talk about sustainability.  The interview was in MIT's Sloan Management Review with Christoph Lueneburger, head of Egon Zehnder's sustainability practice. He tells a wonderful story about something that was said by the founder of Patagonia that is worth repeating.

"I think Patagonia is a leader. I had a conversation with Rick Ridgeway the other day, who leads sustainability at the company, and he said something fascinating. They were doing their Christmas catalogue, and Rick was down there, looking at the always-beautiful pictures and so forth. And Yvon Chouinard, the founder, says in the meeting, “That’s a nice catalogue, but tell me how it is that we’re not just incenting people to buy more stuff they don’t need?”

As Lueneburger says, Patagonia is not saying that its all about growth but instead saying, “It is not growth that will ensure our sustainability, but values.” Yes, Patagonia is exceptional and privately-held but this is where the intersection between value and values happens in the right way.