Reputation is more important than brand

We hear a lot about “building a brand” these days. “Brand” and “branding” are like the latest shiny objects to catch the attention of marketing and PR folks. Agreed … while part of marketing, it’s a distraction from reality, I believe.

Here’s a headline: You can’t make an authentically good brand.

Actor in a Pulcinella mask.

From my experience of working with executives for decades, brand and branding … and certainly “building a brand” … are rhetorical, perhaps self-aggrandizing exercises used to convey hoped-for impressions. It’s a superficial, needy or cosmetic attempt at change, sometimes in an attempt to disguise the true nature of a product, agenda or venture. In other words, it’s more fantasy than reality … like a Pulcinella mask from 17th century Italian commedia dell’arte.

The overarching and far more important dynamic for an organization is reputation. Reputation is integrity, reality … the way things are. How you talk, behave and treat others. Investors make decisions on reputation and reality rather than merely brand.  Reputation sustains an organization.  Without it, there can be no brand.

Reputation addresses the integrity, heart and soul of a corporation or organization as a living entity. Are they honest and fair to do business with? How well are employees treated and compensated? Are they nice people? Would you be proud to have your child working there?

When executives are discussing companies while playing golf, they don’t generally refer to brand. They view companies and other executives by reputation. Hard reality, not fantasy. They choose to do business or to avoid people based on reputation.

Reputation is whether people who matter like and respect you … whether you are seen as honest and ethical … or whether you are disliked.

Branding is a tactical, cosmetic exercise.

While a brand is more of an internally focused tactical or cosmetic element of marketing — like design of a logo or advertisement or look of a website or positioning of a product — it’s, in reality, marketing jargon.  Reputation, on the other hand, is a far more valuable and fragile an asset.  Fragile because reputation can be damaged by unforeseen forces, internally or external.  Reputation is how an organization is seen and perceived from the outside.

Here’s an example … I know of a private equity company in the Northeast that’s gobbling up web hosting companies in the tech industry. Their model is to maximize profit by trimming costs. They move support services and hosting off-shore to cheaper providers, reducing quality and responsiveness of service to customers. They cut jobs in America and use lower-cost resources abroad.  The company has developed a terrible reputation and is reviled among customers reviews online. Yes, the company is making money but at what cost to reputation?

Consider brand versus reputation this way … your family and friends don’t view where you work by saying, for instance, “Wow, you are lucky to work at that place because it has a great brand … !” No. People judge an organization on its reputation … they think reputation and say the word, reputation. You spouse or mother are proud of you because of reputation. Brand is simply not part of that equation.

The importance of reputation in today’s often-chaotic world has never been more essential. Reputation is a great differentiator. Customers, consumers, vendors, investor, outsiders, the media … we all form our opinions and perceptions by reputation. A good reputation is the stuff of pride and success.