Your Reputation is not your Brand

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Sometimes creating a brand can seem like an exercise in generating adjectives. Brands are, after all, a reservoir of positive adjectives that we want the public to quickly associate with our product, company, or service. But take note, not all adjectives, no matter how positive, belong in the brand discussion because they are actually part of reputation. Brand and reputation are different, but I have had many clients who struggle with the distinction. Reputation is about character and integrity- brand is about personality, attitude, and passion.

If you are using adjectives like trustworthy, honest, reliable, dependable, fair, ethical, sincere, even quality in your brand statement, or tracking them as brand attributes, you are actually managing reputation. Reputation attributes must be earned or “vouched for” by friends and family that have first hand experience. Reputation must be managed, but it is a different sphere than brand… and if reputation gets tarnished, brand can’t repair it. Unless you are in an industry with chronic dishonesty and unsavory behavior, you cannot create distinction with reputation drivers. They are points of parity. Only brand creates distinction.

Reputation adjectives are not subjective, in other words there is a wrong answer. If the opposite version of the adjective would never ever be an acceptable attribute it is clearly about reputation and doesn’t belong on the brand list. The best test for an adjective’s being a reputation driver versus a brand driver is the “un” test. Adding the prefix “un”, as in “untrustworthy”, “unreliable”, “unethical”, (or “dis” honest) are showstoppers.  There is no antidote except to ask for forgiveness and repent.

Brand worthy adjectives are action oriented or descriptive of a behavior, and are subjective with no right or wrong answer. That is why brands always need a target audience. The target will either align with your brand and sign on, or respect your honesty and go elsewhere. Brand adjectives should be words like smart, fast, lighthearted, serious, simple, powerful, spicy, or quirky (obviously not a complete list). Brands present a trade-off, with more of this or less of that, forcing a decision on tastes and preferences not character, and thereby become unique and differentiating. A brand can’t be more or less honest, honesty is an absolute.

Brand and reputation co-exist, and the symbolic aspects of your brand (name, logo, product design, color) can trigger good or bad opinions about your reputation, but that is a consequence, not a purpose of branding. Good branding assumes good reputation while adding personality and distinction. In the same way we expect all of our friends to behave with integrity, be trustworthy, and honest, we describe them to others with nuanced adjectives like funny, creative, athletic, and perhaps “a foodie”… thus offering a better picture of their likability.

Talking about your brand with reputation adjectives can sound suspicious, prompting potential “hmmm, why do they have to say we can trust them?” reactions. It’s like selling someone on a blind date by saying the infamous “they have a nice personality”; it sounds like you are hiding something.

Bill Chidley is a Partner and Co-Founder at ChangeUp. Creating Innovating Experiences that Drive Growth. http://www.changeupinc.com

Tweet the author at @chillbidley

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