How To Build A Strong Brand Reputation In The Digital Age


12/8/20215 min read

The online world has dramatically changed how customers and brands interact. In the past, customers would rely on word-of-mouth from friends or family members to learn about a brand, but today’s digital world has opened up a whole new realm of information sharing. This means that brands must work harder than ever to maintain a positive reputation. In today’s world, a single criticism from a customer can go viral and become a PR nightmare for a brand. With social media platforms that connect consumers with brands instantly, 24/7, it is difficult for companies to manage the conversation happening around their brand. However, given this challenge, there are several steps brands can take to protect and maintain a good reputation. Let’s first look at the meaning of reputation.

A corporate reputation is how other members of the public or stakeholder community view a company’s actions and management. It has been described as a shorthand for others’ perceptions about what we stand for, how we behave and the long-term value we create. Many scholars have come up with different definitions of reputation, but most maintain that reputation is entirely intangible and yet able to be measured from its constructs — i.e. credibility, trustworthiness, responsibility and reliability.

3 key elements contributed to the shift of brand reputation management in the last 10 years:
  • Speed of communication: traditional media lead time versus now the ability to communicate all time. Speed with which news and information travels, placing more pressure on both tracking issues and speed of response required.

  • Scale of media : previously brands had to deal with a manageable number of media outlets, now with social media anyone with a grievance or comment can reach a massive audience. Stories are no longer contained and go global.

  • Variety of partners in media that brands have to deal with: It was only mainstream journalists before, however, today it’s a completely different situation, there’s a vast array of different media channels and a huge variety of bloggers, influencers.

With the rise in social media and connectivity, all it takes is one negative comment to destroy a company’s reputation. For example, when Netflix experienced a service outage during the summer of 2013, customers took to Twitter to voice their frustration. In less than an hour, thousands voiced their complaints. The company eventually tweeted that they were working on the issue, but that didn’t stop the onslaught of tweets. As a result, Netflix’s reputation took a hit and their stock prices decreased. While a service outage is certainly not something a company wants to happen, it is an easy problem to fix. However, there are other instances where a business may not be able to fix the problem right away, or may not be able to fix it at all. For example, if a brand is caught doing something illegal or unethical, that is much more difficult to smooth over. In these cases, it is important for the brands to be proactive in their response and take steps to make things right as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the digital age and social media have provided brands with the ability to:
  1. Get instant feedback on changes, products, services

  2. Share positive stories and experiences

  3. Have engaging conversations with customers

  4. Build a true participatory culture with stakeholders

  5. Outsource marketing and advertising to the “fan-base”

  6. Call on advocates in a time of need

The difference between issue and crisis in brand reputation?

An issue can be defined as any problem or potential problem facing a brand. This could be a controversial matter (i.e. increased CEO remuneration) or a contentious choice (i.e. not going ahead with a business opportunity for ethical reasons, though it has the potential to make a lot of money for the business).

A crisis is different to an issue and not all issues become a crisis; however, if an issue isn’t managed, it can become a crisis.

According to Cameron 2006, “a crisis is an extraordinary event or series of events that adversely affect the integrity of the product; the reputation or financial stability of the organization; or the health or well-being of employees, the community or the public-at-large”.

For example, Volkswagen faced a crisis in 2015 when it was revealed that they had been cheating on emissions tests. The scandal not only hurt the company’s reputation but also led to the resignation of several high-level executives, as well as a loss in profits.

Growing and nurturing a loyal community at first will help the brand to navigate the crises later because the brand has grown supporters and the fact that the brand evolved emotional connection with them will help on forgiveness and the issue might be forgotten quicker.

So how can a brand grow a participatory culture?

“Partly due to the enormous cultural power of the internet, audiences are no longer passive consumers of media content but have become active participants in the stories and brands they love.” (O’Donohoe 2011, 915).

Today’s audiences play various roles including that of viewer, user, listener, player and co-creator of content. Taking concepts from Grunig (1984) and Jenkins (2007), there are three types of audience:

  • The “passive” audience, who are spectators.

  • The “shares” or “followers”, who are the ones who help the “spreadability” of the narrative — those who like a story and may look for more content from the same brand.

  • The “prosumers” or “co-creators”, who don’t limit themselves just to sharing content, but also contribute to its development — those who become more deeply involved in your brand.

Having other people creating content for your brand adds authenticity, and yes, this can be negative as much as it can be positive.

There are a number of ways to start building a participatory culture online. Consider the following four strategies:
  • Listen online: this allows you to respond to people who are engaging with your brand, or creating content.

  • Respond: it may sound basic, but if someone posts something positive, respond. If someone posts something negative, you should also respond.

  • Deliver on your promises: this links back to the core of reputation. Do what you say you will.

  • Be authentic: audiences know when you aren’t. Employ people who have a natural talent for this and can show humour and character, while also understanding risk and communication.

The key ingredient of a good participatory culture is to create an emotional connection with the audiences that you’re trying to reach or the people that you want to participate in what you’re doing. So that could be something that excites them or intrigues them. It actually might be something that makes them feel a sad connection to what they’re doing. And they want to be part of it or share it.

To conclude, brands have reputations whether they choose to manage them or not; reputation management centres both on proactive reputation building and defensive protection; in practical terms, that means brands must plan and perform ongoing media monitoring — both online and offline, formal and citizen journalism; manage their response and monitor participation — be aware of the tone and style as well as the attitudes demonstrated in the chosen organisational response, as well as the replies and interactions of the brand’s audience in its conversation.

As communicators we can manage reputation — measure, monitor, respond, react, interact and protect it — but it’s “in the eye of the beholder” that reputation is unpacked. In a world where information can be shared in a matter of seconds, building and gaining the respect of those who interact with your brand is critical to your organisation’s reputation.

Thank you for reading, I’m all ears. Sound off with your thoughts!