One of the dictionary definitions of public relations is, “The state of the relationship between the public and a company, organization, or famous person.” A lot goes into that relationship including your brand’s products, marketing, history, individual customer relationships, press, word of mouth, and so on. In general, it can be broken down into two categories, brand image and reputation. Some PR pros don’t make a distinction between the two, but we think it is important to track and craft strategies to manage each. We have some examples that will hopefully make it easy to see what can impact your brand image and your reputation.
Brand image is made up of all the perceptions your current, past and potential customers hold about whatever it is that you sell and how you sell it. This involves attributes like quality, price, selection, customer service, convenience, and status. Take McDonalds, for instance. Ten people in a room might disagree about whether they like to eat at McDonalds, but the brand’s image as a place to get inexpensive, basic food quickly would be fairly consistent.
While brand image is about what the company sells and how it sells it, reputation refers to the public’s view of the organization’s corporate actions. Reputation is concerned with things like ethical business practices, community engagement, company culture, diversity, transparency, leadership, and association. The question here isn’t, “Do I want the product or service they sell?” It is, “Am I glad they are a part of our economy and community?”
Looking at a boycott is a good way to understand the difference between brand image and reputation. For example, when Target decided to stop identifying certain shelves as “girls” or “boys” toys, some people who were opposed to this approach organized a boycott. This had nothing to do with Target’s brand identity. It’s image as a popular, affordable, mass retailer did not change. The boycotters were reacting to corporate action, not products. (I should note that brands with poor brand images rarely are the subject of boycotts. People don’t buy from them because they don’t want what’s offered. They don’t need another reason.)
Brand Image and Reputation Trends
We’ve argued that brand image and reputation are not the same thing, but they can absolutely impact one another, especially when something goes wrong and trust is broken. This is especially a problem when the brand image isn’t already very strong when the crisis hits.
Reputation is particularly important when you are in an undifferentiated market. Uber is a great example of this. Because many drivers operate for both Uber and Lyft, if you request a ride from either you are likely to get the exact same product at about the same price. Yet, after Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick joined Donald Trump’s economic advisory panel in February, more than 200,000 people deleted the Uber app in just a few days. Nothing about the Uber service had changed, but it’s reputation took a hit with many customers. Kalanick eventually resigned from the panel, saying, “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”
Sometimes a strong brand image is enough to overcome a reputation harming decision that may have otherwise come with significant backlash. For example, you may be aware of the “Passengers Bill of Rights” which details levels of compensation for airline delays and sets rules about how long passengers can be held on a delayed plane. You might not remember, however, that this was prompted after Jet Blue kept passengers on board 5 delayed planes at JFK for 11 hours. A terrible decision for sure, but the brand’s strong image as a more pleasant and customer-friendly alternative to the other big carriers was enough to overcome the initial outrage.
So, while reputation and brand image are unquestionably linked, it is important to measure how each is trending. Reputation can be measured by tracking social media, review sites, earned media mentions and other audience engagement. Brand image is evident in message pull through, share of voice, and media placement. Modern, advanced PR software platforms are capable of tracking both and registering trends over time. The smartest PR strategies are driven by this data and address both sides of the coin.