Reputation vs. Branding

Branding has jumped the shark. The meme is stale. Worn out. Post-peak. If branding were a show on Fox, it would be cancelled next week.

I can witness this trend by watching links going to three posts I made last month:

The latest to point this direction is People Aren’t Brands, by one of these guys here (I see no byline) in UKSN, the UK Sports Network. After pointing generously to the second of the posts above, they say,

In the current business world, brands aren’t human beings. They should be, and any social media practitioner worth her salt will be working damn hard with their clients to try and make them more so, but as it stands they are companies, corporate vehicles which are not set up to deal with human error…the kind we are all susceptible to, especially some high profile celebs.

Well, all due respect (and UKSN deserve plenty), brands aren’t people. True, it’s good to humanize companies, turn them inside out, tear down the walls of Fort Business, and otherwise cut out the pro forma BS that tends more commonly to bottle up a company’s humanity than to celebrate and leverage it. But doing that isn’t branding. It’s just good sense.

True, branding is a helpful way to align a company’s distinctions with its identity, or to make it more attractive, memorable and stuff like that. But it matters far less than a well-earned reputation. Consider these statements:

  • Nike has a reputation for making good shoes.
  • Apple has a reputation for making artful technology.
  • Toyota has a reputation for making reliable cars.

Now let’s re-phrase those using the word “brand” instead of “reputation.”

  • The Nike brand makes good shoes
  • Apple is the brand for artful technology.
  • Toyota is the reliable car brand.

Two points there. First, it’s hard to re-phrase reputation as brand, no matter how you put it. Second, branding is not positioning. By that I mean it would be easier to make positioning statements about any of those companies than to make a branding statement.

That’s because brands are nothing but statements. At best they are a well-known and trusted badge, name or both. At worst they’re a paint job, a claim, a rationalization or an aspiration. Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.

Consider for a moment the value of Toyota’s reputation as a maker of reliable cars. This reputation was earned over at least five decades. Millions of people have had good experiences with reliable Toyota cars and trucks. That reputation has kept Toyota’s head above water through the trials of the last year, when an endless string of bad news stories about sudden acceleration and other faults have been streaming through the news media. In the tug between bad news and good reputation, branding was a no-show.

Judged by the standards of real branding companies (such as Procter & Gamble, which invented and named the practice), Toyota’s branding work has been mediocre at best. It has created cars with confusing names (Corolla, Corona, Carina, Celica, Crown, Cresta, Cressida) and weird hard-to-pronounce names (Camry, Yaris), and has produced relatively little memorable advertising, considering the size of the company and the quality of its cars. Worse, those Toyotathon ads by local dealers, which ran until the Daily Show’s Toyotathon of Death segment buried them for good, were among the most persistent and annoying pitches of all time. In fact, Toyota dealers in general had relatively bad reputations. The one thing Toyota did well was make reliable cars. Toyota’s reputation persists because it was earned, not just claimed.

Branding is jumping the shark now because, on the whole, the Net favors reality over bullshit. Saying stuff may get more attention than doing stuff, at least in the short run. But doing stuff is what makes the world work.

The hard thing for social media folks is that they’re still working the Saying Stuff beat while  Doing Stuff is what matters most. Getting companies to do different stuff, or to do the same stuff differently, is hard. Getting companies to do either of those things for long enough to earn a reputation for it is harder still.

But, good luck with that.

Meanwhile here’s how UKSN (in its People Aren’t Brands post) advises companies aligning with sports figures:

Corporates need to let go of the term ‘brand’ and all the connotations it brings when they are working with celebrities. When they hire the celeb, they think that person is now representative of the brand…something which humans can’t do! They can be themselves and if the company is comfortable with whom they are and what they stand for as a human being…then there is value to be derived by association. Expecting the person to fit into the perceived brand of a company is a recipe for (potential) disaster.

All good advice. What makes branding especially difficult in the sports world is that celebrity itself, and the fashions surrounding it, are part of the game. Sports figures endorse, and are endorsed by, “corporates,” and both benefit from each other. This morning I heard that money offered by teams shouldn’t have that much influence on which team LeBron James signs up with next (so long as they’re all within a few million dollars of each other), because he’ll make far more from his corporate affiliations. This is a set of considerations where UKSN knows far more than I do, and where branding of the old P&G sort still matters a great deal.

Sports is a special case. So are fashion and celebrity, and how all three of those overlap.

In most of society, however — including most of the business world — who you are and what you do matter more than how you look and how famous you become. Because who you are and what you do are what make the world a better place. And not just something to talk about.

[Late addition…] Tom Ford with Tina Brown on marketing and branding. Great clip.

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35 Responses to Reputation vs. Branding

  1. Ed Hartigan says:

    Hi Doc,

    Thanks for the kind words and mentioning the post on UKSN. With this latest post and the Brands are Bull post I found myself agreeing (outloud!) with all of your points, but this one especially “What makes branding especially difficult in the sports world is that celebrity itself, and the fashions surrounding it, are part of the game”. Most ‘brands’ are defined by how their customers percieve their product, and in the sports world, thats the team and the athletes. The club might have excellent facilities and customer service, but if the team is getting smashed week on week or the star players are constantly in the press for the wrong reasons then that becomes synonomous with the brand.

    The one team who seem to ‘get it’ is Barcelona FC who are owned by a 200,000 strong fan consortium. This means that every aspect of the club, right down to the style of football they play is focussed on delighting the fans and making sure they continue to pay the entrance fee and buy the club merchandise.

    I love the notion of replacing ‘brand’ with ‘reputation’…as you say, reputation is real and earned while brand is merely a word…and a pretty horrible one at that!



  2. 1) Regarding “I can witness this trend by watching links going to three posts I made last month” – that seems like a very small thread to from which to spin such a whole cloth.

    2) “Now let’s re-phrase those using the word “brand” instead of “reputation.”

    Seems like it’s no problem at all, and you’ve stacked the deck with an incorrect linguistic substitution (not sure of the technical terms, but “brand” and “reputation” are simply slightly different in terms of parts of speech)

    * The Nike brand means good shoes

    * Apple is a brand which signifies artful technology.

    * Toyota is one of the reliable car brands.

    3) “Branding is jumping the shark now because on the Net favors reality over bullshit”

    HA HA HA HA HA! Are you serious? The Net is a bullshitter’s paradise!
    (more precisely, the social institutions which have predominated on the Net as we know it favor marketing and propaganda, attention above all else)

    4) “In most of society, however — including most of the business world — who you are and what you do matter more than how you look and how famous you become”

    So the financial crisis didn’t happen because it couldn’t have happened?

  3. Of everything you said this statement says it the best “Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.” – Accomplishment over time is the basis for all we do and what companies do. Except those just looking to make a fast buck.

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  5. Mike Warot says:

    I’ll second Seth’s point #3… the net is a bullshitters paradise…

    You used to be able to tell people who were going to rip you off by the carpet bags they carried things in… now a days, reputation is a much more ephemeral thing.

    It’s even worse because we don’t have good security on our PCs, which means what reputation we do have can be stolen or copied.

  6. Good/ interesting/thought provoking article. Great point when speaking of how we should talk less and do more. People love to boost their cyber egos by attacking others online or bragging on accomplishments they will never deliver.

    Kraig Karson KissMilwaukeee

  7. You are right that branding has jumped the shark. Thirty years ago, when I started my business, no business person knew what a brand was, unless they were in consumer packaged goods. But I do agree with the commenters above that there’s as much bull on the net as there ever was in print advertising or TV. There are still a lot of messages pushed at us by companies that are saying rather than doing. My friend Michael Markman just bought a Kia after doing a lot of research. the car is gorgeous. Good safety ratings. Affordable. Kia has no brand to speak of. But it’s obviously doing something. It’s making a good car. After I got finished saying “a Kia???” to him, I learned enough about the car that I will probably buy one next. Why, because in my mind, Michael has a good reputation for knowing what he’s talking about, and that means more to me than the brand of the car.

    How’d you get me started on this?

  8. Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.

    That statement summarizes the issue best. It is reputation that makes or breaks a brand, not the other way around. Good stuff, even if I did read it on the Internet.

  9. Dr Marty says:

    On point number three, I would only point out that it is easy for me to find the true story on the web than through my TV. I can see what customers really think of products. Agreed, there is a fair amount of wading through info at times.

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  11. Doc Searls says:

    “Bullshitters’ paradise” doesn’t cover it. Consider also the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

    The Net is also many other things, some paradisal, others dystopic, many a mix of both and everything between.

    These posts have been appeals to think more deeply about a subject for which there is a great deal of BS in circulation — and the likely consequences of that.

  12. Ben Giordano says:

    “Saying stuff may get more attention than doing stuff , at least in the short run. But doing stuff is what makes the world work.”

    Great stuff, so many people miss the mark on this. Reputations is all about true value, while brands are about perceived value. Perceived value is only good until you interact with the product/company and it usually doesnt last too long.

  13. Another amen to your comment, “Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.”

    I subscribe to the theory that a great brand is earned not dictated. That does take time. My definition of a brand – it’s what people say about your company when you’re not around.

  14. Lots of very interesting ideas in these branding posts, Doc. I’m teaching a course in the psychology of branded objectsthis fall at the School of Visual Arts. As you can imagine, preparing for that class has been fascinating, with the history of branding and advertising being the most interesting aspect.

    My sense is that branding will evolve as a practice, as it has from its cattle marking days, and that the idea of perceived reputation as, literally, an aura surrounding a uniquely identifiable object (which goes back much further in history) will continue to be relevant for our commercial lives.

    And, btw, hasn’t the phrase “jumped the shark” jumped the shark?

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  16. Doc Searls says:

    Ben, I like “reputation is all about true value, while brands are about perceived value.” You’ll get push-back on that, but you’re right.

    Tom, sounds like an interesting project. Let us know how it goes.

  17. Tracy Lloyd says:

    I think this is a great article. At our firm, we believe that your brand is what you tell people to think about you. You own it. You can tell people whatever you want. Your reputation, however is what people actually think about you. It’s what they say when you’re not in the room. You don’t own this. It is shouted, it is whispered, it is blogged, it is tweeted. Its noise drowns out even the most expensive branding efforts.

  18. Brett Glass says:

    Methinks “jumping the shark” has jumped the shark.

  19. Another way of thinking about this is branding vs reality. It doesn’t matter what you say you are when it’s blindingly obvious to anyone with an internet connection that what you actually do is something completely different. Just look at the mess BP is in. I don’t know anyone with an iota of common sense who ever bought into the whole Beyond Petroleum charade. Some more thoughts here:

  20. Andy Henry says:

    Hi Doc,

    Interesting comments and subject.

    There’s also the element of location concerning branding and reputation.

    In some parts of Asia the big Asian brand car manufacturers are seen as a motorbike manufacturer so they sell less cars than competitors. But in the west they’re known for their high quality cars and have a good reputation in that niche.

    In Europe Audio are the biggest selling manufacturer because they have a reputation for reliable and well engineered products. But in Germany (Audi’s home country) they sell less than BMW.

    The brand is one thing – but sales in different regions depend largely on your company’s reputation in that geographic location.

    American car manufacturers often struggle to sell American cars to Americans because they’re often perceived to have lower reliability than cars from some other countries.

    It’s an interesting subject for sure.


  21. |I think brand is important and different from reputation.

    Using an example previous – take Apple. If I asked people which company I meant saying “futuristic” and “white” – apple almost own the colour white in the tech world – that case the brand and reputation are separate but both important in their own way

    An even more stark example. Take the world “magical” – Disney almost own that word.

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  23. WTF is branding? That’s a dumb word that simply means taking a brand, its beliefs, what it stands for and its consistent behavior (all adding up to the promise of a brand) and giving it a “message.” It’s messages that have jumped the shark and branding = creating messages.

    What you really mean to argue is that false messages or contrived messages — think BP’s Beyond Petroleum — have jumped the shark. That is what you call branding. And in an age when the manufacturer, publisher, broadcaster and programmer have lost power to the consumer, reader, viewer and user, it’s obvious that the power of controlled messages (what you call branding) has lost its impact. That’s nothing new.

    Brands, on the other hand, are alive and well. A “brand” has always been its ultimate promise; and what you, a consumer, believe that promise to be. In many ways, that’s the exact same thing as reputation, as a reputation is earned through behavior.

    You’re simply playing an easy to win semantic game and benefiting from the fact that people want to agree with a thought leader when they believe that the act of agreeing will help their own personal brand. Branding by association, if you will, a new form of personal branding in the age of social media.

    You’ve written some great stuff and made some strong arguments. This piece, I’m afraid isn’t among them.

  24. Doc Searls says:


    I did not mean to argue that false or contrived messages have jumped the shark. They have not, and probably never will. I did mean to argue that “branding” as a marketing buzzword has jumped the shark, in the sense that it has been carried by its buzzers far from both its original meaning and the one to which its defenders hope to restore it (by calling it, for example, a “promise”).

    Differences matter. Distinctions matter. A brand may be a “promise,” but a reputation is not.

  25. Doc,
    We may be saying the same thing and using different semantics. I am arguing that there is a difference between “branding,” the act of trying to define a brand, and “brand,” which is essentially what the brand *is* and *does* and delivers as an actual promise, not a stated one. Nike’s reputation is for good athletic shoes. Nike’s brand is about encouraging individual performance. That is its promise, delivered through its product, consistent behavior, etc.

    Coke’s product is a sugary softdrink. It’s brand is happiness, delivered through the way in which its product is used and the occasions associated with it.

    BP’s product was oil exploration and oil. Right now it’s brand is environmental destruction. Recently its branding has been Beyond Petroleum. If we follow your argument, it suggests that such “branding” efforts are futile. But brand, not always the same as product, will always exist. Brand is reputation. Branding is an attempt to change that reputaiton through words or messages rather than behavior.

  26. I’m going to run the risk of being the contrarian here. While I agree that branding is getting stale like last weeks bread, it still holds certain truths.

    Branding, or the way I’ve interpreted it, is about reputation and positioning.

    A brand should stand for something and be synonymous with a phrase to create top of mind awareness.

    Its this shortcut that positions the brand to being a leader within its category.

    If someone said Nike, you probably thought of running shoes. Perhaps sports. Nike started with shoes and branched out later, but many might think of running shoes first being the most common association.

    Pop quiz – when you read the following phrases, its like word association, and you probably have something come to mind instantaneously.

    a) sports car
    b) burgers
    c) coffee
    d) China
    e) Elvis

    I’d think not everyone has the same answers, but many might have chosen;

    a) ferrari, porsche, corvette, mustang…
    b) McDonalds, Burger King…
    c) Starbucks?
    d) cheap products made overseas?
    e) king of rock n roll? legend?

    I think branding can be tied to products/services, people and countries. The initial impression of hearing, seeing or reading about one of them is your interpretation of what a given phrase and what you associate it with is left to marketers to try to influence that decision or reaction.

    Branding isn’t necessarily dead, its just that social media is the new kid on the block and getting all the buzz. My .02.

  27. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Edward. That’s the best summary I’ve read so far on the topic(s).

  28. EMJ says:

    On the issue of branding I recommend Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo.” The rise of “brand meaning” arose in the 90s and has no sign of slowing down. Companies have long since stopped advertising the quality of their products and are instead using manipulative emotional advertising to elicit a response in consumers. So, rather than “Nike has a reputation for making good shoes” the reality is “Nike is the essence of sports achievement.” In reality, of course, Nike has a reputation of exploiting workers in South East Asia to make cheap shoes at a few dollars apiece.

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  33. Pedro Rocha says:

    Beg to differ.

    Brands aren’t humans, true. But they act like humans and relate to humans. Commercial, personal, governamental or country brands have personalities, different tones of voice, tantrum attacks, depressions, euphoria moments ( when they go through make-over processes, like humans do) and other statuses. And again, much like humans, their mood variations come from multiple sources – myself (internal communications, behaviours, values), social life (communications, engagement), professional life ( product, profits), home life (environments), etc. Obviously, brand values, much like personal values, can vary according to external situations. BP’s brand value is much lower these days, but if you or me got fired that would surely affect our brand value as well.

    Some brands are boring, some are not. Some are euphoric, some are relentless, some are ultra-commercial, some are engaging, etc. They try to be, at least. And those who can actually match up what they are with what they want to be and be perceived as can be quite successful. Match promises with delivery and you get the prize.

    Branding is, for me, the management process of creating reputation. The sort of reputation that you do not communicate, but are known for. Which does not mean that they have to be on social media, or VRM adepts or new, or fresh or liars nor angels. They have to fit the environment they were built to live in. Apple is opaque, Zappos is engaging, and you are known for being ahead of your time. Those are reputations, built through long processes of micro and macro decisions. And can be torn appart in seconds, too.



  34. When a brand and reputation overlap then there is a force multiplier effect. It is true that brands manipulate our emotional responses in order to gain mind share. What a lot of companies forget is that using good old fashion lead generation and follow up is the bread and butter of marketing and sales. Too many start up companies try and market this image branding before they even have a business.

  35. Doc Searls says:

    Note the differences in comments between those selling branding and those that don’t.

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