I spent the first 15 years of my career in the brand-building trenches. In the past two years, I switched gears and co-founded a business that measures corporate reputation, using Artificial Intelligence to make sense of global earned media coverage. Navigating the C-suite jungle, I found myself answering the same question over and over: What’s the real difference between brand and reputation?
In a nutshell, brand is more about customers’ experience and mental associations with a company’s offerings, whereas reputation is more about stakeholders’ assessment of corporate actions, both inside and out.
Brand is the siren song luring customers toward your company. It is the irresistible force that makes them pluck you from the crowd, from advertising to the end product or service. Think about the company name, logo, design, or messaging; it is all about standing out and reeling in customers. To measure it, brand trackers usually zero in on attitudinal questions and category entry point in order to measure associations of the brand against its competitors. To capture this cognitive dance of associations, surveys (and more recently neuroscience) are usually the go-to methods to quantify the strength of a brand.
Reputation, on the other hand, is the result of a mosaic of corporate actions, from employee treatment to stock performance to R&D prowess. It gives a nod to the quality of a company’s goods (where it overlaps with brand), but more broadly it looks at governance, investor appeal, workplace attractiveness, and future-facing research. Reputation is a lot more focused on stakeholders with a direct impact on business operations and lays the groundwork for supplier negotiations, media relations, talent acquisition, and regulatory pressure. Corporate reputation trackers ultimately reveal how your company is perceived as innovative, socially responsible, or high-performing. That’s why public scrutiny and discussion make for fruitful sources of reputation metrics.
To summarize, let me put it in a colorful metaphor: imagine playing “shag, marry, kill” with brand and reputation. You’d want to shag the brand and marry the reputation. Fumbling both, though, lands you in the kill zone. But let’s not get carried away.
There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship between the two concepts. A solid reputation fortifies a robust brand, and a powerful brand nurtures a strong reputation. However, as Facebook or BP can attest, it’s possible to have a mighty brand with a tarnished reputation. These two are intertwined, but they’re not the same beast.
So why does distinguishing between them sometimes feel like splitting hairs? For one, size matters to both. Big-name companies tend to score points for both brand and reputation. High awareness is key – after all, a reputation can’t exist in a vacuum. This explains why polarizing execs, corporations, and politicians sometimes fare better than expected despite their “bad rep,” and why the saying “no publicity is bad publicity” still rings true. Familiarity is a crucial ingredient for both brand and reputation management, and it’s often reflected in their respective trackers.
Add to this our complex perception of people, ideas, and companies – a blend of reason and emotion that follows quirky associative patterns, many of which remain beneath the surface. Measuring brand image or corporate reputation often reveals strong halo effects between the two, especially in surveys. For instance, a company’s ESG actions can positively influence its shampoo brand’s image. That’s why, although reputation extends beyond marketing efforts, it’s crucial for marketers to understand.
As we see it, CMOs should concern themselves with reputation for three main reasons:
- Reputation provides a wide perspective of the tides that raise (or sink) the marketing boat. It’s essential to understand your reputation across dozens of storylines — and track how they’re shifting — to ensure your brand messages hit powerfully. It also tells you where marketing has a strong role to play or where it might just be rearranging the furniture; for example, all the talk about brand purpose cannot be championed solely by marketing campaigns, it must be driven by corporate actions.
- Reputation is the glue that binds the C-suite. It links the CCO and CMO naturally, but it also bridges silos and creates opportunities to collaborate. And because corporate actions are the lifeblood of reputation, it makes it a CEO’s darling. So, by mastering reputation, you’re positioning yourself as a vital player on the leadership team, ready to tackle the big issues head-on and support the wider efforts of the leadership team.
- A powerful brand can smooth over reputational hiccups, or at least give it a longer runway before crashing. Grasping the brand-reputation connection isn’t just a way to showcase marketing’s value; it’s a rock-solid argument for long-term brand-building in an era where marketing’s become synonymous with short-term programmatic performance.
In the end, it’s not about siloing reputation and brand; it’s about exploiting their symbiosis. Don’t be blinded by their similarities or get disheartened by reputational factors outside marketing’s domain. Embrace the overlap between brand and reputation as a thrilling playground, while staying mindful of what sets them apart – that’s one of the ways you’ll keep your seat at the leadership table.
If you’d like to dive deeper in this topic, tune in to the WARC podcast episode where I discussed those differences with David Tiltman.