Managing brand and reputation in a digital age

We’ve gone a long way in how we manage corporate brands and companies’ reputations, but reality seems to have outpaced that evolution. How can corporate communicators catch up?

A couple of years ago one of Europe’s largest banks faced an interesting situation: on one hand its communication department was battling to mitigate the reputational fallout of its embroilment in the Panama Papers.

On the other hand, its marketing department was putting the final touches on the intended rollout of its rebranding campaign under the tagline “This Is Banking”.

It wasn’t until an external consultant pointed to the absurdity of the situation that the rebranding campaign was aborted. While it might sound absurd to outsiders, similar situations happen on a regular basis at many large companies across the globe, representing some key problems in how corporate brands and reputations are managed today.

When challenges become obstacles 

To begin with, it is still typically the case that a company’s reputation is managed by the corporate communication department while its corporate brand is owned by the marketing department. This splitting of a concept that is essentially one and the same (both reputation and brand are ultimately defined by people’s perceptions of the company) is only the tip of the iceberg: delivering on the company’s brand and building its reputation are in fact the result of efforts made by many other departments, like HR, Strategy, CSR, and the company’s operations across its business areas.

The siloed nature of a typical large company has been talked about for years, but it hasn’t improved much when it comes to brand and reputation management. It’s true that many companies have merged their marketing and communication departments, but even these companies tend to view brand as a pure customer-related concept and reputation as a stakeholder-related one – despite the fact that in the outside world such lines dividing stakeholder groups have been blurring for years.

Better collaboration and regular exchange between communications and marketing at the above-mentioned bank would surely have prevented a case of near-disaster by rebranding amidst a reputational crisis in the most inappropriate way.

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Another problem exemplified by this story is the lack of relevant and timely data to inform decision-making in this field. While marketing departments tend to be fairly advanced in the use of data, corporate communication departments are still relatively new in this game – having typically little data available, or data that is limited to the quantification of output: for example, media mentions, website traffic and the like. While these data are important, they fail to quantify the impact of activities, and therefore cannot contribute to assessing effectiveness and planning actions going forward.

"While marketing departments tend to be fairly advanced in the use of data, corporate communication departments are still relatively new in this game."

Even in cases where impact-related data are considered, those are either focused on social media only, in which case they miss large parts of the relevant stakeholder universe, or they are collected infrequently, and as a result – are often utilised too late to be relevant. If the bank’s corporate communication department in this case had real-time data on stakeholder perceptions and how they changed as a result of the Panama Papers revelations, and if such data were regularly shared with and used by other departments such as marketing, it is likely that decisions would have been better informed.

Beware the digital age

In today’s world, most business processes are viewed and managed with the aid of analytics, and brand and reputation management is no different. The way we define and demonstrate what a company stands for, and our efforts to improve the company’s reputation over time, should be regularly informed by relevant and timely input that can help companies understand what people think and feel about them, interpret these perceptions and act accordingly to engage people effectively.

In a digital age, this process is not just more important (due to the multiplication of touchpoints and frequency of interaction between companies and their relevant stakeholders), it’s in fact also much easier: digital technology provides companies with tools that allow them to collect and interpret information more frequently and effectively – and share it more widely across the organisation.

"While the challenges of effectively managing brand and reputation have grown in the digital age, they have also become easier to address."

In this light, while the challenges of effectively managing brand and reputation have grown in the digital age, they have also become easier to address by helping automating and accelerating relevant processes. But before using technology to aid the process, the first step still requires some good old-fashioned bridge-building: the need to integrate.

Easy as 1-2-3?

Every sincere effort to improve the way a company manages its corporate brand and reputation must begin with the integration of efforts between the various departments that have a stake in the matter – starting with marketing, communication and human resources. The second element of integration, which is just as important, is integrating these efforts with the “tangible” side of the business – its infrastructure, products and skills that allow the business to operate and deliver on a regular basis. This means clearly connecting the stories and messages that are part of the brand and reputation building with the company’s physical assets and capabilities, and collaborating closely with the parts of the business that manage what the business has and does.

At Airbus, the way we did this was work closely with the various business areas as we embarked upon the development of our new company purpose. We started by building a consensus around the definition of reputation as being something that is “built by consistently delivering what you promise to those who matter to you” – meaning that it’s about what we do and how well we do it, more than it is about what we say. We then together built a purpose framework that integrates emotional and fact-based drivers of our company’s identity, including our values and behaviours on one side, as well as our business strategy and commercial ambitions on the other.

To assess the effectiveness of our efforts, and shape their evolution, we created a measurement system that combines strategic and tactical dimensions – integrating both brand measurement and reputation measurement in one set-up, informing both strategic business decisions and tactical communications.

The second step marketers and communicators should take has to do with automation. In the context of brand and reputation management, what this scary word really means is using technology to improve processes of listening to stakeholders, learning from their views and reacting accordingly.

Most companies today still take a traditional approach to generating, interpreting and activating stakeholder insights: commissioning a one-off research study with a lengthy set-up phase, protracted field-work and long delays before receiving results in the form of hundreds of PowerPoint slides; then sharing these slides with whomever is interested in the organisation, and struggling to make sense of them, let alone agree any follow-up actions.

These processes end up being prohibitively expensive, and more often than not they provide insights that are isolated from the business, and that in themselves are sometimes irrelevant due to the time lag between generating the data and discussing its activation. By using digital tools that automate the data collection and analytics, insight visualization and internal distribution, companies can reduce the cost of these efforts significantly, and generate insights that are more timely and relevant, and can therefore support faster decision-making.

This way of working can also open up opportunities for more sophisticated metrics integration and data analytics across the business, since real-time perception data can then be analysed against other real-time business data. That, and the ability to consume the data online, greatly enhance the involvement of other parts of the business in this work – as well as their interest in brand and reputation insights, and the value these insights create for the business as a whole.

The final step in the process is a natural consequence of automation, and that is acceleration. When data and insights are easily and readily available in real time, they can also be activated more frequently and broadly. Instead of painstakingly collecting, analysing and interpreting data, and periodically sharing it with the business, the corporate brand and reputation team can become a facilitator for internal end-users.

It can help markets, functions and business areas learn how to work with a digital tool that serves them with brand and reputation insights on an ongoing basis, so that they can assess the effectiveness of their activities themselves, evaluate the impact of external events on their stakeholders, identify emerging risks and keep in step with changing expectations among their relevant audiences.

This way the business gets more value by directly utilizing insights that inform operations and strategy, help optimise resource allocation and shape channels, messages and engagement activities. And all this on a much more frequent and accelerated basis, instead of once a year. To accelerate the value generation at Airbus and support the business better, we increased the frequency of our monitoring system and widened the group of end-users who can benefit from brand and reputation insights and their activation. We’re in the process of creating the right digital tools that can help us accelerate this process further and make it more effective.

It may not be as easy as 1-2-3, but integrating, automating and accelerating work processes is something that is happening everywhere these days – within and across all companies, and throughout all aspects of the business. And there’s no reason that brand and reputation management should be any different. Which digital tools to use and how much to invest in such changes is something for each company to decide based on its own circumstances, but at the very least if companies can avoid a situation whereby the marketing department invests in a branding campaign that runs against the crisis recovery efforts of its communication department – then surely that’s an investment worth making!.

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Three steps to better brand and reputation management

Integration: connect efforts across the various departments – starting with marketing, communication and HR – and link brand and reputation building to the company’s physical assets and capabilities.

Automation: use technology to improve processes of listening to stakeholders, learning from their views and reacting accordingly. By using digital tools that automate the data collection and analytics, as well as the visualisation and internal distribution of insights, companies can reduce costs and make faster decisions based on more relevant insights.

Acceleration: when data and insights are easily available in real time, they can also be activated more frequently and broadly, serving markets, functions and business areas with brand and reputation insights on an ongoing basis. Accelerating work practices around the consumption and activation of such insights allows continuous real-time decisions that optimize activities and mitigate losses.

Holger Schubert

Holger Schubert is head of brand management at Airbus. With a background in design and identity business, Holger has worked in aerospace for the last 17 years, with leading brand communications and advertising roles.

Shahar Silbershatz

Having previously run the EMEA consulting practice of Reputation Institute, Shahar is now CEO of corporate brand and reputation specialists Caliber (www.groupcaliber.com). He has more than 20 years of experience in this field working out of New York, London and Copenhagen