The Mechanics of Reputation

What's the difference between your brand and your reputation?

Adversity brings out the best and worst in all of us — as individuals, organizations, and apparently, even as brands.

Over the past few months we've seen some brands rise to the occasion — behaving authentically, empathetically, and with emotional dignity. 

We've also seen a few serve up cringe-worthy #fails, with yet-to-be determined reputational impact. 

It's enough to give even the most iron-bellied of brand managers some pause. What's the right thing to say or do? How do you know if you're doing it wrong? And how are the choices you make today going to impact your world in the long-term? 

The one thing we know for sure is that not engaging is not an option. Who you are as an organization — what you stand for, who you stand behind, and who you stand up to — is more important, and public, than ever. 

So is it time to rethink the way you talk about who you are? How do you get started? And what exactly is it that you need to rethink? Your brand? Your reputation? Your marketing? Is there a difference, and does that difference matter?


"Branding" is a notoriously slippery subject. 

Like love, and Twiglets, it seems to defy most attempts at definition. 

Is your brand your logo? Your design aesthetic? Your mission statement or value proposition?

One explanation you might have heard: 

Your brand is what people think about when they hear your organization's name.

Which sounds nice. 

But is it actually true?

I believe that the thing people are thinking about when they hear your organization's name is actually your reputation. Your brand is one of the tools you can use to steer that reputation in a specific direction.


Your Reputation: The Car

To understand the difference between brand and reputation let's use the analogy of a car rolling down a hill.

That car is going to be propelled forward, even if your hands are off the wheel and your foot is off the gas. It is an object in motion, whether or not you’re in control of its speed and direction.

Similarly, your reputation is an active and moving object, whether or not you make any proactive efforts to direct its course.

Your Brand: The Wheel

If your reputation is the vehicle, then your brand is the steering wheel. It helps you point your reputation toward a specific destination, avoid potential road hazards, and correct your course when driving conditions change.

Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” brand helped them navigate out of the e coli sinkhole they hit in 2015. By publicly taking responsibility for their mistakes and moving forward with branding that focuses on their dedication to fresh ingredients, Chipotle was able to get things back on track.

In 2018 they launched the “As Real As It Gets” campaign, which can be easily tied back to their “Food with Integrity” concept. In addition to highlighting “ingredient transparency”, the campaign introduces messaging that breaks through with endearing authenticity and honesty.

Having a quality brand strategy in place makes it easier to proactively plot a course to the reputation you want. It also helps you react quickly and effectively to unforeseen "road conditions" along the way.

Your Marketing: The Gas

If your reputation is the vehicle, and your brand is the wheel, then that makes your marketing the gas — and the harder you slam down on that pedal, the faster your reputation can reach your desired destination.

Someone who is absolutely flooring it — from a marketing perspective — is Spotify. With an awesome brand strategy by Collins setting the course, Spotify is absolutely burning it down the road with marketing that spans almost every medium, including the product itself. Their executions explore a variety of styles and tones, leveraging everything from user data to meme culture, all in an effort to capture that moment when, as Collins puts it:

“An individual makes a personal connection with a song, (and) their reaction is to cry, cheer, scream, sing, jump, or get chills — or, as we phrased it, ‘burst’ with emotion.”

This combination of skilled brand piloting and marketing acceleration has helped earn Spotify an envious reputation as the undisputed leader in the music streaming business.

If you're not investing in smart, on-brand marketing execution, it really doesn't matter how great your brand is. Without any gas in the tank, you'll end up on the side of the road, frantically spinning the wheel, going absolutely nowhere. 

Enter: The Exception 

So is it possible to have a solid reputation without a smart brand strategy or marketing plan?

Of course it is.

One example near and dear to many a cleared nostril is Sriracha, the hot sauce produced by Huy Fong Foods. They don’t advertise, and they don’t have to, because let’s face it, what else are you going put on that week-old veggie burrito that can simultaneously kill any blossoming foodborne illnesses AND significantly perk up the flavor?

Ketchup? 

Please.

Huy Fong Foods' website is literally the first-class car on the train to crazytown and they still managed to sling over $150 million worth of liquid fire in 2018.

So sure, if you're the only car on the road, people might hitch a ride because, I guess it beats walking, but Sriracha may need to rethink its hands-off strategy as a new brand of “Sriraja” is poised to enter the American market.


So How’s Your Driving?

Branding and marketing are extremely effective tools when wielded thoughtfully by a practiced hand.

They can also cause serious damage to your reputation when improperly or irresponsibly deployed.

If you yank too hard on the brand steering wheel — by making drastic or poorly researched brand overhauls — you can easily slam your reputation directly into a tree.

If you press too hard on the marketing gas — or neglect to press on it hard enough — you can end up careening your reputation into a ditch or (maybe worse?) simply stalling out completely.

What does this mean for your organization?

Well, are you a startup unicorn who is drafting off the PR semi in front of you? If that's the case, maybe you don't need to make a serious investment in branding and marketing right now.

Then again, while hype always provides a fast, free ride, it also dictates your reputation's speed and direction. This can leave you without recourse should the buzz veer off on a course you don't like.

Or maybe it's just the opposite. Maybe you’re at the helm of a legacy organization that's operating more-or-less on cruise control. You're not sure, but you think you might have missed the relevancy offramp about a dozen miles back.

Is there time to turn it around before you get permanently marooned on the side of the road?


If you want to do a quick road test, sit down and try to articulate, in a sentence or less, your organization's governing purpose: who you are, what you do, and why.


This is how our brand strategists at Viget have articulated the "who, what, and why" for a few of our partners:

So can you get it down to a sentence? (Spoiler, this is pretty much your organization's brand strategy.

And is the information in that sentence authentically reflected in your organization's design and messaging? (Aka, your marketing execution.)

If so, feel free to self-administer a robust high-five.

But if you're struggling, that's OK too — help is just around the corner.

Falling asleep at the wheel of your own reputation is an epic, expensive, and sometimes irreversible mistake.

The good news is, with the right copilot, it's 100% avoidable.

Ally Fouts

Ally uses her MS from the VCU Brandcenter to solve client problems through brand development, content strategy, and good old-fashioned storytelling. She works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ with clients such as Dick's Sporting Goods, The Nature Conservancy, and the White House Historical Association.

More articles by Ally

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