How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Pathway to Reputation
Brand reputation does not happen ‘just like that’. There is a yellow brick road that is more or less paved, leading from brand professionals thinking about the subject, right down to the reputation being formed.
Brand management aims to create brand by intentional action. Deliberate decisions are made about brand personality, brand values, brand positioning, brand logos, etc. Attention is paid to customers and competitors. Done smartly, the whole strategy and culture of the company are lined up behind the brand to deliver on the intent.
And yet none of this is the brand. It may be intended to be the brand, but brand itself is still far away.
Despite best intent, there’s many a slip and the enactment of brand-oriented plans will never come off perfectly. Even when people start with a perfect intent, they have to formulate their action based on their inner world of understanding.
Unfortunately, as Korzybski pointed out, the map is not the territory. But we constantly act as if it is. We take our inner maps that we have built to help us understand the world around us and then formulate actions that will perfectly achieve our intent. But the plan is already flawed because nobody has the right map. Our inner maps are gross simplifications of a massively complex outer reality.
And as if this was bad enough, even putting the perfect plan into action is doomed as our actions are secretly twisted by our inner biases, goals and deeper needs.
Enactment is still not the brand. However it is getting closer than the intent. It is the difference between Argyris’ Espoused Theory and Theory In Use. You are what you do, not what you say. Company values is the totality of what their people do, not a neat list of values on the website.
Like a bullet fired, the enactment of the brand has no meaning until it reaches its destination. And even then it has far to go before a reputation is formed.
When the brand messages in all their glorious forms reach the people standing in their way, the brand itself is starting to form. This happens in the perception that is created in the heads of both intended customers and innocent bystanders. It is as perceived by everyone who touches the brand in any way, whether from a lifetime’s experience or a brief third-hand mention from a passing stranger.
Perception does not come clean and pre-packaged. We take direct experience and infer meaning by passing it through a set of highly-biased perceptual filters. First we classify, using broad mental models and unique memories. Then we assess for immediate threats. Then we test against expectations and goals, re-predict the future and compare against our values. To complicate things further, all of this is biased by our current emotional state.
The eventual perception we infer is thus far from the sensory inputs we receive. Even after the original perception, we continue to ponder, muse and reflect on our experiences, changing their meaning even further.
Perception is the brand as experienced. Perception is not reputation, but reputation is perception.
When I buy something from a company or otherwise experience the brand, I am getting a first-hand snapshot of what the brand really delivers. From this I directly develop my perception of the brand. On the other hand, if I listen to what others say then I am getting a second-hand version of events. I get their perception, which I then modify via my perceptual process. And if that transmission is third-hand, fourth-hand or more, then the effect is multiplied further.
Communicated perception is reputation, but from a single person it is just a single data-point. If I am inclined to believe that person and act on their perception, then for me, that is all the reputation I need. But many people do not just go on the say-so of a single point of authority. They listen to others and think for themselves, too.
We not only listen to other people when they talk about brands—we also talk back, asking them questions and offering our own perceptions. Out of the conversation a shared meaning (or as much as this can happen) arises. Thus brand reputation may be viewed as being socially constructed.
Thus reputation is not created in individual perception, nor even in a second-hand, unidirectional transmission, but in the dynamics of real communication between two or more individuals.
True communication is communing, the joining of minds as is sought in open inquiry or dialogue. However this nirvana seldom happens. It is more like a battleground of ideas and wills, where evolution occurs in real-time. Discussions go around and about and eventually the loudest voice or the clearest idea takes root as an unspoken, tacit agreement.
In many ways, the birth or change of a brand reputation is tied up with the brand reputation of the people doing the arguing. People with strong reputations, who command attention and trust, have the greatest potential to forge the actual reputation of the brand under discussion.
Beyond the local conversations whereby I get a personal sense of brand reputation, there are thousands of such conversations that travel across the unbroken network of human relationships. This is where the total reputation of the brand is built. There are many factors that affect diffusion, as identified by Everett Rogers and others.
Some people know more people and talk more than others. Some people are listened to more carefully than others. The brand perception as received by these people will thus travel further than from others.
But people belong to groups, and almost by definition converse more with in-group people and have different attitudes toward them than towards out-group others. Reputation is thus likely to grow differently within each group. Brand ideas will jump between groups like a forest blaze leaping a fire break only when there is sufficient heat and sufficient connection.
And at any one time, reputation reaches as far across groups as the fire has spread. In some it may be fixed and established, whilst to other it may still be novel and a subject of heated debate.
In the final analysis, the value of a brand comes in the simplification that it brings to decision-making. The inferred promise of a brand enables us to short-cut the evaluative part of the decision process. In our inner construction of the brand we have already done this, mapping out a simplified meaning.
When we choose between brands, rather than guess or choose on tangible aspects such as price, we compare the brand values that we have inferred and hence rapidly make what we assume will be a wise and safe decision.
The reputation of a brand includes an element of reliability. The psychology of judgment under uncertainty rears its head here, and our perceptions of 100% reliable are very different from even a 99% perception. This explains at least in part the fragility of reputation. The psychology of betrayal and retributive justice is another minefield for the unwary.
Christopher Argyris, Knowledge for Action, Jossey Bass, 1993
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, Institute of General Semantics, 1933