What really drives your reputation?

It was a pleasure to be able to assist Teneo Strategy’s Partner, George Hutchinson, as he developed the ideas for his third Society Brand report, which was launched this week.

Using Message House research, George makes a compelling case for why businesses need to start with the basics when it comes to reputation. The biggest drivers of reputation for most companies sit very close to their products and services, and the quality, safety and value they offer. Other actions, often perceived as the most reputation-enhancing, such as environmental action, were less significant in moving the needle. The details of our research and the full report can be found here.

Speaking at the event that launched the report this week, I said the research helps us to discern three different types of companies with regards to reputation.

First, The Disconnected. These businesses have lost sight of their purpose or core positioning in the public’s mind. Examples are banks that put our money at risk and damage the economy; retailers that don’t offer the good value, quality products we want; food and drink manufacturers whose goods are felt to cause individual or social harm. For each of these Disconnected companies, their reputation challenge sits very close to the core purpose of their organisation. No amount of reputation-offsetting will change this picture. They need to start by fixing the fundamentals.

Second, there are The Gamblers. These companies face significant challenges due to a perceived disregard for social, ethical or environmental standards, and yet they are saved reputationally because of their ability to excel at their core mission. Examples are tech disruptors who don’t pay their taxes or who maintain poor working conditions for their staff, and yet manage to deliver excellence in customer innovation and service; airlines who revel in having no brand affinity or customer empathy and yet deliver a no frills experience at a low cost price; even pharma companies whose work and business model is perceived to be opaque and secretive, and yet create much needed, life-saving medicines. Each of The Gamblers are betting their licence to operate that no-one else will emerge who can deliver their core proposition as well as they do, but without the negative social effects. Take away the unique value they provide society through their products and services, and the protection this offers will leave them vulnerable to public criticism and greater regulatory scrutiny.

Finally, there are The Balanced. These companies have matched their ability to deliver on their core promise with a recognition of their responsibility to society. They have products that are not only appealing but provide a societal benefit. Their leadership embodies their brand strengths and helps the company to be perceived as transparent and open about how it does business. They marry short-term business goals with a desire for long-term sustainability and success.

There aren’t many companies that sit in this final category. In the research we undertook for the Society Brand report, probably only one of the eight companies truly reflects the approach of The Balanced. However, the majority should aspire to reach this stage and the findings of the research should provide a valuable road-map for others who want to follow in their footsteps.