At The Corner of Reputation and Brand

For a car nut PR guy, it was a pinch me moment: the top comms executives from Ford, GM, Toyota and Nissan, all assembled on one stage, trading friendly(ish) barbs over whose hybrids were greener, whose muscle cars brawnier, and whose road back from financial peril more noble.  But you didn’t need a Motor Trend subscription to appreciate their remarkably candid opinions at the Council of PR Firms’ annual Critical Issues Forum late last month.

Their discussion, along with all-star panels spotlighting food and beverage, consumer packaged goods and not-for-profit, examined the interplay of corporate reputation and the brands under corporate umbrellas.  The big question that opened the conference: which has more influence on purchase consideration and recommendation, reputation or brand?

As new research presented by Robert Fronk of Harris Interactive revealed, the answer depends on what dimension you’re looking at. The Harris study found “excitement,” “quality,” and “outperforms expectations” rating high among brand-centric influencers, while “clear vision,” “strong growth potential” and “good company to work for” mattering among reputational factors.

None of that should come as any surprise.  The big wow came from Harris’s painstaking cross -tabbing of data. As it turns out, the combination of positive brand equity and positive corporate reputation drives purchase and recommendation to a degree that often far exceeds the sum of parts.  The Council packaged it up well as Hidden Harmony, a valuable white paper on the study.

The lesson is that brand and reputation, often built and defended in separate (and sometimes, antagonistic) silos, need to be managed in lockstep with one another.  Each matters a ton, and even more so together.  If social media lifted the veil on consumer opinions of brands and companies’ reputations, here’s validation, big data-style, that it all really matters.

The automakers and other corporate icons represented on the Council’s panels – McDonald’s, Pepsico and P&G – had already gotten the message.  Ford’s Sara Tatchio characterized her company’s Go Further campaign as one built to impact everything from the ground up, starting from the employees who had to believe that just surviving wasn’t enough, to its individual car brands being challenged to create vehicles competitive with Europe’s and Japan’s best, to a dealer network asked to rethink what a domestic car buying experience could be – and to shareholders, who needed to see a company being remade for the long haul.

Employee engagement was also underscored by Bridget Coffing, McDonald’s Senior VP for Corporate Relations, who laid out the challenges and opportunities special to a global icon with a shared corporate and brand name.  She explained how that reality renders decision-making and public communication at every level, from the C-suite to the front counter, an extremely self-conscious act – waters that McDonald’s navigates by keeping everyone focused on its mission: Good Food. Good People. Good Neighbor.

Kelly Vanasse, a global communications VP at P&G, described her company’s super-sized first foray into overt integration of its corporate and individual brands, through its London Olympics campaign.  Reminding us that great marketing grows from sharp insights, Vanesse recounted the a-ha revelation that inspired P&G to go “all-in” on the Summer Games, and take flagship brands like Tide, Duracell and Gillette with it: that every Olympian has a mother.  That in turn opened the door to powerful storytelling aimed right at the consumers who are the company’s and its brands’ very lifeblood.  Vanesse took us into the trenches, into a global war room that told those stories in real time, was physically embodied as The P&G Family Home that invited families of Olympians to relax and recharge (amidst healthy exposure to P&G brands), and that generated more than one billion earned impressions.  (Of course, having a nine-figure advertising campaign driving massive awareness never hurts.)

Perhaps what stuck with me most is how Harris’s findings present yet another opportunity for PR to lead – in this case, by bringing it all together.  Doing that effectively requires a longer-term view, thinking beyond the next campaign, to what a company wants to say about itself, and how its brands contribute to that narrative.