A serviceable definition of a corporate brand is ‘what we say and believe about ourselves’. It’s our authentic identity, our unique gene – what makes us, us. By contrast, we can think about a corporate reputation as ‘what others say about us when we’re not in the room’ – our image, or what others expect us to be like, and to do.
Part of our job, as communications researchers, is to understand and analyse the distance between our brand and our reputation – the misconceptions, or perception gaps, if you like. To what extent is our true reflection distorted or obscured, when it reaches the eyes of our most important audiences?
Once we‘re armed with a clearer understanding of any such disconnects, and their root causes, we can develop communications and engagement plans which will gradually close these gaps. Our reputation will then be an authentic mirror image of our brand, and our stakeholders will interact with us in the ways we would want and hope.
Except, of course, it’s not that easy.
Reputation is not a single, immutable measure, or even a nice, clean pen portrait. Rather, it’s a complex, shifting amalgam of beliefs, expectations, rumours and influences. To a much greater extent than our brand, it will evolve over time and vary widely between (and within) different audiences, particularly when companies operate globally. It will fluctuate in response to events and the actions of rivals. Finally, employees may see things very differently to external audiences – and not always for the better.
The moral? If we want to understand our reputation, a one-size-fits-all research approach – however seductive – just won’t do. Each client will have its own communications challenges, priorities and audiences, and will face a unique context beyond the doors of its corporate HQ.
If we really want to build stronger reputations and communicate effectively, we need contextualised, actionable insights. That means we – clients and advisors – have to take the time to understand our brand, our reputation and the causes of those perplexing gaps between the two.