Your Reputation Sucks

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(NOTE: This essay draws on a chapter in my new book, Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, which identifies nine radical branding and marketing insights for innovative business leaders to watch in 2010).

In case you haven’t noticed it, almost every public and commercial establishment blew up this year. Your reputation and brand aren’t what they used to be.

Citizens no longer believe in their governments. Investors don’t trust the markets. Science, history, and even the very definition of what constitutes facts are up for debate, quite often contentiously so. Even though our planet is evermore wrapped in the knowing embrace of instantaneous communications, networked conversation, and access to literally infinite amounts of information, people seem to agree less, distrust more, and rely on a shrinking list of common beliefs.

And what we marketers talk about most often is how consumers want more conversation?

It’s like we’re debating over a nuanced description in a sentence that nobody is reading, let alone has any capacity to comprehend. Process over purpose. Right answer, wrong question.

You wouldn’t know it from the "best of" successes we’re going to hear about over the next month. We’re supposed to emulate campaigns — whether new or old media — that deliver awareness, engagement, social currency, branded content, and a myriad of other made-up benefits while ignoring the ugly fact that nobody really believes or cares about the crap we’re propagating (or certainly don’t care as much as they once did).

We’ve detached our branding and marketing efforts from the reality we were once expected to influence, and there’s no more graphic example of this phenomenon than in the financial sector:

  • Their very structural foundations were called into question early in the year
  • Cold, hard facts proved old processes and certitudes to be no longer reliable
  • Individual investors lost untold amounts of money
  • Financial firms responded with expensive branding that effectively told people "don’t worry, be happy"
  • The firms announced no changes in behavior or reporting. Consumers are still wary and mad

A similar disconnect is evidenced by big brands that announce philanthropy or other creatively symbolic gestures in lieu of real actions:

  • Worried about global warming? Your friendly neighborhood oil company is on it with glossy commercials of its scientists busy at work solving the problem
  • Bothered that agriculture businesses making oodles of profits while a large chunk of humanity starves? No worries, because they contribute to charity
  • Product tampering got you spooked? The brands, whoever or whatever they are, promise to never let it happen…again

It seems that we marketers have confused communications meaning and relevance with volume and frequency; yet no amount of repetition, whether declared in an ad or press release, or repeated by online evangelists or in chat rooms, is a substitute for substance. While we’re focused on getting our metrics for smart new marketing up, every reasonable measure of corporate and institutional reputation is not just down, but way down.

Consumers don’t wake up in the morning hoping for a closer relationship with brands, or wishing that they’d get more marketing intrusions in their lives. I think that every exhortation to "talk more" or "add to the conversation" belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the marketers’ challenge.

If the last year has shown us anything, it’s that the medium is not the message.

The message is the message. 

My prediction is that consumers aren’t as dumb as we think they are, and that in 2010 credibility is going to be a major brand differentiator…perhaps even more so than any emotional or associative benefit. People can connect the dots, or believe that they can, and the fact that they’re rejecting most traditional forms of marketing could have something to do with the fact that what we’re saying hasn’t been credible for quite some time. 

They just don’t like our dots, however brilliantly rendered.

Similarly, we’ve had to invent ROI measures for newer forms of communicating that don’t even presume or aspire to credibility, per se, and offer new metrics that aren’t particularly related to the old ones (i.e. sales). 

The reality is that reputation has moved out of the hands of image makers and into reality. Reputation and brand depend on what your business does, not what it says or how creatively it says it. The marketing challenge is to find ways to narrate this process and experience, and in doing so restore the credibility in what we do. You don’t need a new media campaign or better billboard ad. No channel is more legitimate than another.

The marketing opportunity is to discover the content that matters. Until we do that, corporate reputations are going to suck.

The Bulb Asks:

  • Instead of brainstorming what you want your customers to believe, should you come up with reasons why (and how) they should believe your brand?
  • Communicating doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so do you know how your content relates to the context in which it’s consumed?
  • If your 2010 branding goal was to be trusted, would that provide you the platform to promote a variety of added benefits? Conversely, if your brand isn’t actively trusted, does even the smartest marketing only add insult on top of injury?

(Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs contains 10 tips on this topic and 8 others)

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