06/03/2014 05:54 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

Corporate Reputation and Brand Are Two Very Different Things

Judging from how CEOs and other executives talk about how strong their brand is, one gets the impression that they equate having a strong brand with having a good reputation. Corporate heads often say things like "We're the preferred brand in our category. Our products are the best. We're known for innovation. We're trusted." These leaders think that the attitude the public holds towards them adheres to a similar process as their company's brand. This is not the case. Reputation and brand are two different species.

In fact, reputation and brand operate quite differently and even play out in different directions. Reputation stems from people looking out at the corporation. Brand stems from people looking in at themselves.

Reputation, or a company's "good name," derives from peoples' perception of how ethical, credible, responsible, and reliable people perceive the company to be. A good reputation is sought and is a good thing to have. But it's quite different from brand. Moreover, a good reputation does not guarantee a potent brand.

In today's world, reputation is primarily formed by what the public sees and hears via the media; and next by word of mouth. Very little that goes into the assessment of reputation, if anything at all, is derived from a consumer's direct, personal experience with that company. With brand, everything is derived from personal experience. What do I mean by this? Let me explain.

What is Brand, Really?

When one pays attention to people as people -- people in real life, living on-the-ground in real-time -- and doesn't just think of them as consumers who trade money for products -- a whole new and more valid definition of brand obtains. When it comes to brand, the question is not how readily your company's name is recognized and how strongly that name is associated with attributes consumers are interested in.

When thinking about people-in-life, human nature, and the nature of mind, the paramount question is: Why and how do people "attach" to something -- anything -- a product, a person, or an idea? This attachment process predates marketing by millennia and is nothing less than the engine of history.

This attachment occurs only under one condition: When a person's story about him- or her-self gets metaphorically merged with the story that individual has of "you." This integration is completely and exclusively in the purview of people. The company can't do this; this process is not in their control. The company can indirectly gird this metaphor making, but it cannot govern it. This is partly what I meant above by saying brand stems from people looking at themselves.

This self-directed merging of self-story and object-story produces a spasm of sentiment such that a rock-solid bond with the object is achieved (in the context at hand, the object is the company and everything it does). This isn't product loyalty. It's self-loyalty, because in this attachment process, product offerings are not an end-point as much as they are a means and a venue from which people can feel how to make manifest in themselves that which up until now has only been latent. Here, the product and how it is connoted is viewed as a challenge, a provocation. This intrinsic self-expansive aspect to brand (as lived by real people) is exactly what is responsible for the deep, abiding emotional connection between a person and an object (AKA: product). Reputation is much more linear, rational, logical. More straight-away.

Interests v identity

Neurological experiments have demonstrated that when we identify with another -- when we feel something is part of us -- the brain's medial prefrontal cortex is activated, a brain region involved with self-definition. In this case, the product is felt to fit into the picture a person has of himself or herself. A reverie about self is provoked in which a self-referring narrative envelops the person. In contrast, when a person feels the attributes of a product are simply good but doesn't identify with it, the brain region known as the putamen lights up. This experience is rewarding but not self-involving. The object remains external. We humans crave the satisfaction that comes when our identities are understood and reflected. Preference and purchase come from identification, not comparison.

Brand and Poetry -- The Apple Example

After this metaphoric merging between a person and something else is accomplished, one of the sure signs of this condition is people often stop talking about you in prose and shift to a kind of mundane poetry. Listen to one example from a 31-year-old man in Chicago: "The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle; it's smooth and it glides. It's easy and makes me feel I can do things more easily and do more; that I can be bigger and a better me. All other phones and network providers are a box; they have corners and squares, are highly structured, have too many rules, and are too technical and linear. " A good reputation never leads to poetry.

An interesting condition arises when there is tension between reputation and brand. From a reputation perspective, it can be argued that Apple is having a tougher time now than in the past -- questions over Tim Cook's leadership, issues in China with the iPhone factories, questions over what's next in terms of new products -- but the brand is of course still incredibly powerful. Amazon is also an interesting case. Some say its fight with publishers has hurt its reputation. However, its still a brand that many people use every day.

Brand Allows a Forgivable Flaw: An Example from Politics

Ronald Reagan's perceived absent-mindedness, or occasional nap during an audience (with the Pope, for example) was a forgivable flaw many gave him a pass on because they identified with his folksy style and were comforted by his manner and voice. Reagan embodied the idea of the benevolent leader -- the one who "knows the way" but is as comfortable as an old shoe. He was what all brands need to be: familiar and mythic; appeasing and powerful.

Brand Feeds on Complexity and Paradox

When vying to be number one, what compels peoples' emotional attachment is a rendering of self with some complexity, contradiction, and irony -- like real people. Johnny One-Notes, even if the tune is likeable, cannot endure in the public mind and heart. Leadership requires a layered character.

A paradoxical persona is attractive because it's simply more human, and it engages the audiences' imagination so that narratives of identification -- brand -- have more elbow-room. Think Walter Cronkite: grave but grandfatherly; Greta Garbo: chaste but seductive; or Elvis: profane but sacred. We all are "God and buffoon." In contrast, reputation managers typically think in terms of a centrist personality, a middle-of-the-road image. Their ideal: Don't cause any ruffles. Well, that's fine for reputation, but it gets you nowhere with respect to brand. From this point of view, Gennifer Flowers can be seen in her rightful place in the Bill Clinton story. She made him come out of his policy wonk style to become an emotional being and a fighter. Naively, media was saying that was the end of Bill Clinton. CEOs and CMOs are socialized into their roles and in most cases follow their doctrinal tradition. They are trained to believe that consistency is what breaks through. Not so. Trial lawyers know well the relationship between complex identity and credibility. A witness whose story is so one-dimensional, so pre-ordained, so flat, is one the jury will not believe.


Perhaps now is a good time, when things are rapidly changing and so old ways are easier to question, that marketers face up to the reality of the true nature of real people and see them for more than the ciphers they are usually thought to be. To understand people as living beings that are dealing heroically with what John Updike called "the gallant, battered, ongoingness of life," is to acknowledge the social responsibility all corporate leaders and all corporations have: To make money and make magic. Perhaps the deity named ROI (Return on Investment) that is worshipped so impulsively should be replaced by a quest for ROA (Return on Attachment). This is what CEOs really should be paid to go after and measure. When they do, their reputations will grow.