Changing how we think about reputation

June 04, 2012

Changing how we think about reputation

It is not every day that I read an article several times over and then take notes. That is what I did after reading Graeme Trayner’s paper presented at the Annual Market Research Society Conference, March 2012. Its title is “Emblems and Shortcuts: Rethinking Corporate Reputation Research.” Graeme is a partner at Brunswick in opinion research and a fellow reputation-follower.  I first heard his name when I found a wonderful research article about the concept of the “permanent campaign.”

I basically agree with his thinking on the state of reputation research – where it has been and where it needs to go.  His overarching point of view is that current reputation research might be too mechanistic, rational and simplistic for how people shape perceptions about companies today.  Yes, the current framework most commonly used is powerful because it easily reduces the many drivers of reputation to six or seven key dimensions such as financial performance, quality of products, leadership, etc. Despite its simplicity, that is the beauty of it.  I think he is referring to some of the publically available frameworks from Harris Interactive, Reputation Institute and possibly Fortune’s Most Admired. I see his point that these methods make an enormous assumption that people are rational actors and make decisions about what companies to buy from based on these preordained reputation drivers. And, these frameworks do not take into account reality, that is, different stakeholders see companies differently (financial analysts do not view company reputations the same way as consumers or the media do).  He posits that this way of thinking dilutes what is really happening today.  On the other hand, I should add that the beauty of these frameworks are that they are mostly publically available and can serve as valuable guideposts to how companies are viewed.  They serve a great benefit to companies looking to track broad perceptions over time, those without big budgets and those CEOs who do not take reputation as seriously as they should.  These frameworks have their deficits and I do believe that most company leaders recognize that when taking advantage of them. The solution is to use them as snapshots but to really gauge reputation, a company needs to customize their own research.

Graeme calls for a newer approach that takes neuroscience and behavioral economics into consideration. Essentially he calls for greater attention to how mental shortcuts, symbols and what the crowd is thinking to help us make choices about companies. He calls for a fresh approach that takes into account “a series of interconnected associations and frames, rather than a static set of reputation drivers.”  The world of perception is indeed one big network of images and loose connections, particularly when we are bombarded with so much information today.  

There are many things he writes about that are important to think about when it comes to reputation (which is why I took notes to keep for myself). A few stood out when it comes to identifying the cues and symbols that help shape reputation perceptions.

·         The idea that people use fast or slow thinking (he cites Kahneman, 2011) when it comes to forming opinions. Slow thinking is “deliberative and logical,” whereas fast thinking is what we do most of the time and involves embedding impressions and intuitions about companies and things in our minds.  When I think about how impressions get shaped about companies and leaders for most people whose livelihood is not reputation, it often feels like “hearsay” or “half-truths” certainly do the trick. For example, JPMorganChase was a reputation champion until we heard about the $2 billion trading loss on May 10th. On May 9th, they were a leader and one day later, a laggard. For most people, they just heard something fleeting on the news and it became a permanent stain on their reputation. Who has the time to drill down into the facts?

·         He also cites the idea posited by Robert Heath (2011) on low involvement processing. In essence, people are forming images without conscious awareness – “people are still taking in images, associations and messages from advertising, even if they are not fully engaged.”  We can’t take it all in but we are taking it in at a low level.  And these perceptions stick as well. I may never buy a Boeing aircraft but I form impressions through bits and pieces of scrap information.

·         The part that I also like thinking about is the concept he cites about “social copying.” With the pervasiveness of the Internet today, people have access to what everyone else is thinking. That online reinforcement that everyone likes blue M&Ms further deepens one’s thinking about whether a company is a good one or not so good one. “Understanding the social ‘stickiness’ of aspects of a reputation is crucial to identifying how to evolve corporate profiles.”  For this reason, in my view, online reputation management is so critical to managing reputation today.

He recommends some thoughtful ways to embed this thinking in corporate communications campaigns for the betterment of reputation. These are many of the things that we do every day in this field. We urge companies to find that one important “signature” initiative that we sometimes refer to as thought leadership and make it memorable, distinctive and impactful.  A good example might be IBM’s Smarter Planet. Graeme calls this an “emblematic initiative.” Applying muscle to this initiative is critical. His other suggestion to corporate communicators is to start with an issue that tackles a societal problem. The key is making that known and making sure it aligns with the business. A good example is TOMS shoes, a shoe company that donates a pair to a person in need every time someone buys from them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that when I was looking for summer soles.

Take a read when you want to slow-think and be deliberative. It feels good.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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