Corporate brands and authenticity

More than a century before Al Gore invented the Internet, Abraham Lincoln observed: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Now, that analogy doesn’t make Honest Abe a forefather of corporate reputation management. But it still rings true today, and here’s why.

Technology (including the Internet, search and social media) and globalization have made corporate decisions and behaviors – the tree – more visible and transparent to stakeholders around the world. From Beijing to Bentonville, stakeholders now have a larger and more immediate line of sight into the full reality of businesses, warts and all. Stakeholders are less dependent on parsed, sanitized and selective disclosures from companies. And regulators, activists and watchdogs now have new ways to dig up the whole corporate truth.

This transparency has contributed to declining levels of trust in some companies, governments and other institutions. And now, corporate character, values and ethics are on full display and scrutinized almost daily. Recent examples: JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Walmart.

Two recent items have helped to underscore this sharper focus on corporate character:

  1. A few months ago, the Arthur W. Page Society published Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy. Among other things, this ground-breaking white paper argues that some of the bedrock principles and models that guided communications for decades are inadequate today. It notes: “No longer are mass, one-way communications the only way to reach people – or, in many instances, the most effective. No longer do an influential few, such as those ‘who buy ink by the barrel,’ control the world’s communications channels. No longer can messages to one audience be walled off from those intended for others. Purchase may no longer be a sufficient outcome, even for a sales communication. And a parent corporation or institution cannot remain invisible behind its consumer brands or spokespeople.”
  2. The second item is a late-2011 study, The Company Behind the Brand: In Reputation We Trust, by Weber Shandwick. 87% of the executives who responded to this survey agreed that strong corporate brands are just as important as strong product brands, and 65% of those executives agreed that product brands can benefit from the overall reputation of the parent company. Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber’s Chief Reputation Strategist, noted: “Whereas it has long been known that a strong brand shines a light on a company’s reputation, it is now clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that a strong company reputation adds an undeniable brilliance to the brand.”

In other words, corporate character, values and ethics can no longer remain static inside lucite paper weights and corporate lobby displays. Now, the decisions and actions companies and their people take, day after day, are on full and almost immediate display. To earn trust, companies and all of the employees and business partners must consistently behave in a manner that is authentic, 100% true to their character. I said more about this in an earlier post.

One of the contributors to the Page report summed up the new imperative with this insight about corporations today: “how we are is who we are.” Amen.

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