The End of Reputations? – Marketing in a world of distrust and misinformation  

8th June 2018

It is human nature to look for reassurance in a rapidly changing world that is replete with uncertainty and inconsistency. In a search for certainty we sift through increasingly large amounts of information and as the alternatives increase, we need better reputational guidance than we have ever had before.

In a simpler, ‘data-lite’ by-gone era, we relied on institutions with established reputations, for guidance. But as we know, the trend away from trusting established organs such as politicians, banks, the media etc…, has been ongoing for some time. These established bodies have been replaced by a wider range of reputational sources – including individuals (often celebrities or ‘influencers’) brands and of course – our friends. These new sources of reputational assistance are increasingly diverse, diffuse and often downright misleading.

Examples of reputational malfunctions include the fake news crisis around the 2016 US Election and recent events at Amazon where the authenticity of ‘user’ reviews has been called into question.  In the latter example, of 47,846 total reviews for the first 10 products listed in an Amazon search for “Bluetooth speakers,” two-thirds have been listed as  ‘problematic.’ Other categories on Amazon causing concern have included Bluetooth headphones, weight loss pills, and testosterone boosters. Facebook, itself at the heart of this reputational crisis, is seeking to boost its integrity as a news ‘publisher’ (what they are, but not a word they would use) by assessing and grading the content sources it hosts.

Gloria Origgi, in her book Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters,sums up the reputational paradox nicely, highlighting that more information can actually make us less smart and less independent than before – There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous.’

So, in a digital environment where reputation may increasingly be skewed ‘bad’, rather than ‘good’, what can marketers do to reinforce positive perceptions, strong reputations and thus boost shareholder value? Here are some observations, both for the overall marketing sector and for the specific vertical categories of Travel and Tourism, Pharmaceutical and Consumer Goods.

Not surprisingly, a customer-focused approach to marketing is essential in leveraging consumer perceptions and boosting a brand’s reputation. Businesses that understand the upward shift in consumer power are better positioned to maximize the opportunities provided by positive brand reputation.

This recent piece from Forbes (The Age Of Online Reputation Management: How Consumers Now Govern Brands) looked at best marketing practice in two areas, both focused around the importance of consumer-centred thinking –

  1. Key Factors to Focus on– Transparency, (ANA Marketing word of the year 2016) Social good, Integrity, Inspirational branding, Staff treatment and Happiness.
  2. Reputation Management / Marketing– ‘Addressing negative commentary immediately in a polite manner,’ ‘Understanding the reasoning behind negative commentary and attention’, ‘SEO’ and ‘Proactive monitoring’

With brand reputations under fire, there is a commensurate need for rigorous reputational management, and marketers have responded with concerted attempts to understand the problem. Marketing Week has an editorial area dedicated to the subject and there are now a number of rankings, assessing brand performance in the area of reputation and trust. Some of these include – Reputation Institute’s America’s Most Reputable Companies, 2017,  YouGov’s Brand Index,  and YouGov’s Brand Advocacy Ranking.

Looking at the latter, Airbnb tops the charts, with its customers being the strongest advocates of any brand listed. On this ranking, Airbnb is succeeded by Universal Studios Orlando and MoneySavingExpert.com. Brands from the travel industry make up 50% of the list.

The strength of travel brands is not surprising, as this is a sector where people can be emotional about brands they advocate and passionate about places they visit. On an associated point, Airbnb’s added advantage in the area of reputation management is that it is only possible to leave feedback if you have utilised the product; which is quite different from the scenario involving some Amazon products and reviews. The high position of MoneySavingExpert.com, a price comparison site, underlines the trend towards trusting newer ‘independent’ intermediaries, rather than more established category vendors.

In the area of pharma, the business models of research-based pharmaceutical companies are under significant pressure. The return on R&D investment has dropped to its lowest levels in decades, and public reputations are in need of improvement. The problems here are around the high costs of drugs, a perception of unmet medical needs, and some issues with marketing practices in the sector. A fully (global) consumer-centric response to this problem would be to ensure affordability, so products reach as many patients around the world as possible. This strategy would tap into potential growth in emerging markets and improve public trust in the industry.

In the consumer goods sector, the digital environment has allowed for expanded retail reach, but also exposure to the full ebb and flow of consumer governance.  Growth can come through leveraging positive consumer connections to create empathy and loyalty; some good examples in this area are here, and some not so good ones here( The Biggest PR Crises of 2017 )

Reputations are (thankfully) not at an end, but they are under significant pressure. For brands, the rise of consumer influence represents a potential threat, but also a considerable opportunity – for those who understand customer-centric marketing principles, can manage their reputations effectively and assist consumers in navigating an environment overloaded with information.

Nick Hammond

@digital_filter

7th June 2018