Most PR professionals would agree that both brand image and reputation are important, but it is not uncommon to use the terms interchangeably or confuse one for the other. Certainly they are linked, but they are not the same thing. For companies striving to make data-driven public relations decisions, it is important to note the difference and measure each independently.
Your company’s brand image is the sum total of all the perceptions held by your current, past, and potential customers about your company’s specific products and services. Brand attributes include things like quality, value, variety and the shopping experience. From the potential buyer’s perspective, brand is all about, “What’s in it for me?”
Reputation, on the other hand is the entirety of the public’s opinion about a company’s corporate actions. Reputation attributes include community building, corporate culture, policy, job creation, and citizenship. The public asks and answers the question, “Is this company the good guys or the bad guys?”
Brand Image and Reputation in Action
Although they are two different things, brand image and reputation measures are obviously strongly correlated, and often trend in the same direction, especially in times of a PR crisis. However, in some cases a strong brand image can overcome reputation problems and reputation problems can damage a strong brand. Here are a couple of examples:
- It would be difficult to argue that Walmart has a great reputation. In fact, even following a recent wage hike, the brand’s reputation scores continue to decline. Yet, it continues to be the world’s largest company by revenue. The brand appeal of extremely low prices has (at least for now) been strong enough to overcome the company’s reputation as an employer that is not good for the community.
- Following the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico, polling showed that BP’s favorability dropped drastically in the US. American customers reported choosing to buy gas from another company if they had a choice. Yet, nothing about the gas provided by BP changed after the spill. The shift in perception was entirely driven by reputation, not brand, and consumer spending followed the shift.
As these examples illustrate, a strong brand can sometimes become a substitute for reputation. When the brand is doing well, the public and potential customers may care less about whether the company is creating jobs or giving back to the community. They may also figure that if Mercedes makes great cars, for example, they also treat their employees well and are a good corporate citizen. However, the reverse is seldom true. No amount of philanthropy will make people buy poorly built cars.
So What's the Takeaway?
It is important to develop effective PR strategies for both brand image and reputation. While it often makes sense to start with the brand, as companies become more established reputation gains importance. Fortunately, today’s technology makes it possible to understand and communicate how each is trending so that you can address the overall perception of your company with both potential customers and the public at large. Both brand image and brand reputation influence PR impact. And by working to improve both using a data-driven PR strategy, you can finally prove the ROI on your PR efforts & how they are driving the bottom-line of business.
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