Mind the (Reality) Gap: Brand vs. Reputation vs. Consumer-Perceived Authenticity


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As we enter 2014, it’s useful to both look back at what was learned in the past year and project what trends will emerge or crystallize. Nowhere is this more important than in understanding the degree of relationship, and difference, between brand, reputation and enterprise authenticity as gauged by consumers.

Public relations expert Paul Holmes (www.holmesreport.com) recently summarized some of the best 2013 research on engagement, brand, and reputation. He identified twelve studies, several of which were fairly original in their approaches and findings. One, by APCO Worldwide, determined that, globally, 4 out of every 10 people surveyed said they would not buy products or services from a company if they didn’t agree with its policies or practices. In addition, the study identified four “a’s” of brand-building:

– Alignment – meeting stakeholders’ most important expectations

– Authenticity – acting in a manner that is consistent with what the company says

– Attachment – the degree to which stakeholders emotionally connect with a company

– Advocacy – acting on behalf of stakeholders’ interests, and adding value to society

Another company, Cohn & Wolfe, studied the value of corporate transparency. Their research found that two-thirds of the consumers in the U.S., U.K., and China rated an organization’s honesty and transparency alongside price and quality when considering whether to buy a product. In addition, the study found that the public is cynical about corporate transparency and authenticity: more than a third felt that companies only disclose what is needed to meet legal purposes. And, Fleishman Hillard’s “authenticity gap” study found areas in which companies can improve their corporate and brand reputations: management behavior (doing the right thing, credible communications), societal outcomes (employee care, community impact, and stewardship of environment), and customer benefits (offering products and services that deliver better value, customer care, or innovation).

Along the lines of the Fleishman Hillard authenticity study, Hill + Knowlton’s “communicating character” research found that 9 out of every 10 Americans feel companies must make more of an effort to align their behaviors with publicly stated values, i.e. reduce the gap between what they do and the reputation and level of authenticity they’d like consumers to perceive. Stated more simply: companies need to consistently walk the talk, or there is a belief gap.

My colleague Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, Chief Reputation Strategist at Weber Shandwick, recently had an article in The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-leslie-gainesross/reputation-trends-for-201_2_b_4518471.html) where she projected a set of seven reputation trends for 2014. These included stronger focus on culture and brand building, the increasing role of women at senior corporate levels, more attention to reputation by board-level management, and more online social media participation by CEOs., Of the reputation trends cited, one is particularly encouraging and one is particularly troubling.

1. Encouraging: Employees as enforcers and ambassadors of reputation. Employees have long been key drivers of customer experience, and it’s a real positive to see their role as supporters and defenders of reputation acknowledged: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/elves-rule-employees-make-customer-experience-and-should-be-recognized-it

2. Troubling: Use of a single number metric to understand reputation. We’ve already seen a single number approach applied to recommendation and effort, as stand-ins or surrogates for understanding customer behavior. Having them applied to reputation will, as suggested by Dr. Gaines-Ross, create the kind of interpretation and granularity challenges we’ve witnessed in other elements of customer experience and value: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/emerging_chinks_and_dents_in_the_universal_application_and_institutionalization_armor_of_popula

So, the common theme of these trends and studies: Organizations must pay attention to the value and consistency between their words and deeds if they want to avoid perceptual gaps in authenticity and reputation.

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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