Corporate Image, Trust, and Reputation and Customer Advocacy Behavior: Is There Linkage?


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“The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation”
Richard II, Act 1, Scene 1, William Shakespeare

Corporate trust and reputation matter. In fact, they are every company or organization’s most valuable assets. Trust and reputation go hand-in-hand, and need to be protected and enhanced. An excellent reputation doesn’t necessarily translate to a better bottom line; but, a bad reputation can definitely be damaging to a company’s future. Any negative hit to a company’s reputation often results in a decline in consumer trust; and any erosion in trust equals a negative hit to business growth. Not something a CEO wants to treat lightly.

A 2008 study by the CMO Council found that almost 100% of the customers surveyed claimed that they would either scale back or terminate relationships with companies that fail to build customer trust. Customers need to see that a business is working hard to build a solid foundation of trust among its customers. For many organizations, the first, and most essential, step in building trust is understanding why their business may not have as positive a reputation as it once had, or should have.

In the Spring of 2010, the Reputation Institute, in collaboration with American Banker, published the results of a study that measured the reputations of 30 large U.S. banks. The study revealed that the 7,800 U.S. consumers surveyed felt that how a bank is perceived to behave in its transparency and business dealings accounted for close to 16% of their overall reputation score. This is not a statistic that can be dismissed. Governance was the single greatest contributor to reputation. In fact, it was even higher than the contribution to reputation of a company’s products and services.

The key take away from the Reputation Institute’s study was that, unlike many other consumer products and services, banks are both challenged and struggling to recover from the negative sentiment caused by their role in the recession- in the eyes of consumers. And, banks needed a ‘theme’ that “… not only resonates with the public interest but elevates the sense of esteem, trust, and admiration they engender.”

It is no surprise that the reputation of banks and financial institutions has dropped significantly since 2009. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer survey—which talks to 5,000 adults in over 23 countries—less than one-third of Americans trust banks to ‘do what is right.’ Across the 20 industries covered by the Edelman study, companies in the financial sector—banks, insurance companies, and financial services—rank in the bottom three industries in terms of consumer trust and reputation. It is clear from this study that companies in the financial sector have yet to recover their trust levels prior to 2009 within the U.S. Consumers just do not trust them. Before the tide can turn, they have a long way to go to rebuild the trust levels they had, at least among U.S. consumers.

Getting Beyond Lip Service

Banks often pay lip service to reputation. But reputation carries both opportunity and risk, not only for the financial services industry, but across all business-to-business and business-to-consumer sectors. Why is corporate reputation so important? Why must companies do everything possible to create, optimize, and protect perceived reputation and sentiment? Because if they don’t, they won’t grow; and, worse, they might not be around for long.

Customer advocacy research helps corporate clients understand how to best leverage image and reputation insights, enabling them to go beyond lip service. After all, if a company can influence and shift customer behavior, grow their reputation, increase trust, and make customers like and respect them for all the good they are doing, can any organization afford to ignore its advocates (or potential advocates)?

Our National Retail Bank Customer Advocacy Study, conducted in 2010 among 7,000 US adults, first identified the correlation between customer advocacy level (Advocate, Allegiant, Ambivalent, and Alienated) and share of customer. Advocates drive positive business outcomes. Their behavior is important for banks to understand. It is equally important for banks to understand what is alienating their customers. If a company fails to understand its alienated customer segment, it’s impossible to generate change through corporate messaging and value proposition development.

Advocates vs. Alienated Customers

The greatest insight that we gained from our National Retail Bank Customer Advocacy Study was that advocacy monetizes at a stronger, and more consistent, rate compared with other key customer research measures. A consistent theme emerged—customer behavior in the marketplace is a direct reflection of advocacy levels—so, for all companies, the question they need answered is: What is your advocacy level and is it helping or hurting your reputation?

We found that Advocates have a strong willingness to explore new products from their primary bank—50% will consider vs. 5% of Alienated customers. Advocates are virtually certain to have a continued relationship with their primary bank compared to Alienated customers, who are virtually certain of not continuing their relationship. When Advocates consider new products and services, they will do so with their primary bank, while Alienated customers will look to the competition.

Bottom line, banks must pay close attention to whatever elements of communication, image, and experience drive customer behavior. Earned trust and reputation are high on the list of these elements. In our banking study, a significant degree of variation existed within the levels of advocacy behavior, as demonstrated for the top fifteen U.S. banks included. Interestingly (but not surprisingly) the banks with high customer advocacy levels also had strong corporate reputations:

Beyond simply creating superior customer experiences, the banks that earned high levels of advocacy did so in large part because of their solid reputations and the trust and confidence they created among their customer bases. One of the key confirming elements of customer advocacy research is the impact on loyalty behavior, both positive and negative, of informal, brand-related communication sent and received by customers, rather than the traditional ‘push’ messaging engaged in by companies for decades.

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer study findings identified the degree to which customer trust protects, or undermines, reputation. When a company is distrusted, 57% of their customers will believe negative information after hearing it one or two times, compared to 15% who will believe positive information after hearing it one or two times. Conversely, when a company is trusted, over half of their customers will believe positive information after hearing it one or two times, compared to one quarter who will believe negative information after hearing it once or twice. These are compelling findings indeed and further incentive to look at how a focus on advocacy can not only promote growth, but also positively improve corporate reputation.

The National Retail Bank Customer Advocacy Study shed further light on the strong relationship between reputation attributes related to trust and customer confidence and the advocacy behavior segments. The attributes which related to the elements of reputation and image showed strong correlations to how our advocacy segments are defined, and how they behave. Those customers that were identified as Advocates gave high scores to the banks that they felt demonstrated strong reputation and image behaviors, while those who felt disengaged with the banks provided lower reputation-based scores.

A Tale of Two Banks

As can be seen from the analysis conducted on two separate banks, image and reputation-based attributes offer insight in to which reputation based elements are important to leverage increased degrees of advocacy and which detract from positive reputation and can possibly damage a corporate reputation. With the first bank (Bank A) it is evident that there are some moderate image-related negative behavior drivers, i.e. creators of alienation, principally the image effect of a lack of consistency. This bank can also build greater advocacy levels by leveraging the impact of a reputation and image by proactively taking initiatives on behalf of their customers.

Based on the multivariate (discriminant function) analysis outputs below, it is apparent that the second bank (Bank B) has a bigger image and reputation challenge among their customers. The single greatest contributor to customer alienation is the inability to earn customer trust and confidence. This type of negative image and reputation will surely undermine and destabilize this bank’s many customers who might otherwise be fairly ambivalent about the bank, but who remain based on inertia, also creating bank distrust within other stakeholder groups. Specifically, because of its power, this single issue can undermine bank reputation among the general public, employees, vendors, and even some of the more positive customers.

While Bank B does generate some positive image-related perceptions—the sense of customer belonging, and image of proactively being there for their customers—evident among their Advocates, the strength of the negativism associated with low trust and confidence, is clearly the first priority for relationship and image fence-mending. It is imperative that a positive communication and value proposition plan is developed to offset the damage that has been cause by a lack of trust and confidence in the bank.

It should be noted that these findings on the impact of image and reputation and their relationship to advocacy are not unique to the financial services industry. In truth, virtually every company in every b2b and b2c industry is vulnerable to reputation attack and resulting business impact. As noted by Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, Chief Reputation Strategist for international public relations firm Weber Shandwick:

“There is an increasingly critical connection between brand and service promise, corporate and brand reputation trustworthiness, the transactional experience (as delivered by people, processes, communications and culture), and downstream customer behavior. Any small ripple in reputation change (such as through a product-related issue, online rumor or executive miscue), brand performance or customer service can have a tsunami-like effect on business outcomes which may last indefinitely. This is especially true now because of the permanency provided by social media.” *

Cross-Industry Implications

To further illustrate this point, we can look at research results for a high tech B2B company, to demonstrate again that reputation and image is impacted by customer Advocacy levels—regardless of industry or business type. Our study gathered customer insights related to key elements of reputation and image (ie: stable company, positive reputation, reliability, trustworthy company, industry expertise, market leadership, stands out from competitors, investment in the future, etc.) as well as related areas of performance which contribute to relationship-building (ease of doing business, risk reduction, strategic relationship management, understands business objectives, etc.).

Results demonstrate both the challenges and the opportunities inherent in customer advocacy-building. Among the image, reputation and relationship diagnostics, the one which leveraged positive behavior the most was “Reduces commercial risk”. This is a performance component which definitely speaks to a greater need for better customer assurance and trust-building—a significant attribute that drive corporate reputation. The level of trust and reputation that customers had in this case study, represented by two diagnostics in the graphic below, are equally driving a negative corporate reputation for their customers. The combination of these two reputation elements strongly suggests that this company has its improvement priorities well identified. They need to specifically determine what is behind their poor image and then initiate a tactical and strategic corporate communications program with stakeholders to turn the situation around.

Concluding Thought

Leslie Gaines-Ross offers a fitting final observation on the increasing importance of trust and reputation on stakeholder behavior, and how to protect and enhance it:

“Going forward, to generate lasting trust, positive reputation, and continued consumer confidence for brands, products and services, companies will need to focus on customer-centric leadership, as well becoming more transparent and authentic. They will have to ramp-up inclusion of employees and customers, and more actively engage in offline and online dialogue with all stakeholders, particularly their advocates. Successful companies will, at the end of the day, stress inside-out and outside-in advocacy in all of their actions and processes to both drive positive business outcomes and be accountable to all of their constituents—even the virtual ones.” *

We understand both the power of enterprise image and reputation and the important linkage of perceived corporate trust and reputation to customer advocacy behavior. As demonstrated, we have developed actionable tools and techniques through our proprietary advocacy research framework and targeted analyses to help companies protect and enhance their reputations.

Anu Bhalla, Market Probe’s former VP of Customer Advocacy Research, contributed to this article.

* Afterword, from The Customer Advocate and The Customer Saboteur, Michael W. Lowenstein, ASQ Press, 2011

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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