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Manage the essence, not the message

The biggest problem with the reputation industry, however, is its central conceit: that the way to deal with potential threats to your reputation is to work harder at managing your reputation. The opposite is more likely: the best strategy may be to think less about managing your reputation and concentrate more on producing the best products and services you can. BP’s expensive “beyond petroleum” branding campaign did nothing to deflect the jeers after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Brit Insurance’s sponsorship of England’s cricket teams has won it brownie points in the short term, but may not really be the best way to build a resilient business. Many successful companies, such as Amazon, Costco, Southwest Airlines and Zappos, have been notable for their intense focus on their core businesses, not for their fancy marketing. If you do your job well, customers will say nice things about you and your products.

The Economist (21 April 2011)

Business leaders these days are bombarded with fresh advice regarding what might be their biggest asset: their reputation. They are asked actively to manage their reputations via heavy investments in public-relations contracts, brand building, social media engagement and “mind-share.”

I have always found such advice to be wrong-headed and self-serving, and it was good to see a comprehensive rebuttal recently in The Economist‘s Schumpeter column.

There can be no doubt reputation is an extremely valuable thing. As companies and markets mature, importance moves away from tangibles (buildings, equipment, locations) to intangibles (reputation, customer loyalty, employee spirit). After a while, anyone can do the “tangibles thing,” but few can pull off becoming distinctive through things that you can’t even see or touch.

Reputation is one key intangible. No one denies its importance. Ask giants such as Toyota, BP, News International, Goldman Sachs, RIM and many others who have suffered huge reputation damage in recent years. The best way to manage or improve your reputation, however, is where the problem lies.

The excerpt shown touches on the essential wisdom: you don’t manage reputation by managing it directly; you manage it by working on the essentials of your business, which in turn influence your reputation. If you want to boost your reputation, in other words, boost your business basics: your efficiency, service levels, product quality, reliability and consistency.

Few managers want to hear this, as getting the basics right is hard work that takes years to get right. It’s far more seductive to think you can gain a quick and relatively cheap reputation boost by having a savvy PR advisor, advertising guru, or spin doctor. You can’t. No amount of spin can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

This is a growing trend in Kenya, and an unfortunate one: a flow of positive messages in traditional and social media, about essentially bad companies. The thing is this: people who run good businesses spend their time running good businesses, not talking about them. When products and service are great, that fact is obvious. Reputation takes care of itself. Smart brand management is then an additional layer of excellence, not a shallow substitute for the real thing.

When the basics are bad, however – when quality is shoddy, service is sour, reliability is non-existent – no amount of massaging can get rid of that problem. You have to fix the basics first. Feel-food advertising, sugary social-media management, corporate social responsibility projects or manipulation of online metrics will not help you.

If your investors, employees and customers don’t have faith in you, your goose is cooked. No amount of smoke or mirrors can get you out of that one. The best reputation is not a wig or a smart suit; it is a reflection of inner goodness.

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