Talk may be cheap, but your reputation is priceless

Loathed as I am to make any reference to politicians in this blog, I was struck this week by a bewildering assessment made in reference to the reputation of Australia’s beleaguered PM, and deemed it worthy to make an exception. The Prime Minister was due to address the National Press Club, in a speech that I heard described as “make or break”. It would either salvage his reputation as a respected leader or spell the end of his time in the top job. Really? That must be some speech.

Sure, it was most likely an over statement by an excitable political reporter. Yet the question of precisely how a reputation is built (and in this case, how it can be restored if severely damaged) is an important one for businesses. Why do businesses believe they can talk their way to a great reputation? Do customers (or voters) really believe a brand or person’s own account of their performance?

It is naive to imagine that a reputation can be established purely on what a company says about itself. And yet, companies continue to push messages about their own self-assessed greatest – the virtues of its products, services or other qualities – and neglect to do the things that earn its customers’ trust. I, and many other consumers, would like hard proof about stuff like how a company delivers on its promises, resolves issues, has built a loyal following or demonstrates core values.

What you say about yourself is your brand message. What people remember about you is your reputation. 

People are, by and large, cynical beings. We know a sales pitch when we hear one. While it’s undeniable that words are very powerful in changing minds and behaviour, people are now less moved by overt advertising messages. After decades of advertising invading every aspect of life, we are far more aware and consequently, immune to the persuasive language of marketing. Instead, we listen to our own judgment of a brand, or when in doubt, we turn to those who have nothing to gain from our consumer choices – friends, family, professional experts or industry commentators. Research continues to observe the growing preference for recommendations from independent sources, and the decline of consumer trust in advertising. A clear trend is emerging that places reputation and social proof way ahead of predictably positive marketing jargon as the influence on buyer behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, the PM’s speech did nothing to quell the leadership speculation. His words, however carefully chosen, were clearly intended to restore faith. He could do nothing to erase his audience’s memory of the things he’d done in recent months, which were viewed by many as missteps and fumblings. 

Reputation cannot be created or resurrected in a single tagline or speech. Your reputation is an outcome of everything you do, your attitudes and values. Like a flower grown from a seed, it takes a long time to blossom (and, unfortunately, can be cut down in an instant).

The cultivation of a positive reputation is the fundamental role of content marketing, and one that is very achievable with the right approach. One of the best things about the new forms of marketing communication; social media, forums, webchat, blogs and multimedia content; is their ability to enable businesses to demonstrate action and values and slowly build a compelling story over time. Plus these platforms make it possible to encourage and share positive sentiment about your company from happy customers or engaged fans. And if problems arise, the same platforms can be used to engage directly with customers to resolve issues transparently. While traditional marketing often focuses on creating an ‘image’ and relies on quirky campaigns and memorable taglines, the new platforms allow customers to experience the real company behind the image and form a personal view about its reputation.  

Reputation building is a long-term process. In the hierarchy of things we trust, consistent action and values trump carefully crafted marketing spin.  If you want to your customers to think you’re great and deserving of a solid reputation, you need to show them, consistently, honestly, what you’re about.