Brands no longer control their own reputations. So how can B2B businesses leverage this shift in power? Toby Southgate, CEO UK & Ireland at The Brand Union provides his top tips
The landscape in which brands now operate has changed beyond recognition, as has the responsibility for organisations in their role as brand guardians. A brand’s reputation, once a healthy product of a successful strategy, can now be driven and developed completely by its customers, prospects and other external audiences. This change has the potential to mean newly empowered ‘users’ can have a major influence on a business’s success. Or failure.
This shift has taken place as a result of the convergence of significant factors, each laying a foundation for the next, and together constructing an environment where the responsibility for brand reputation has been interrupted and unseated.
Technology and innovation is first, combining to create a new, real-time connectivity. Through technology we now have the ability to engage instantly with one another, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. The internet and social networks, and our access to these tools via increasingly powerful and portable smart devices means – should we choose – we never need be out of sync with what’s happening. We are able to take part in the conversation wherever, whenever, and on whatever subject we choose.
As the world opens up, information becomes a currency in its own right. Our thirst for information, quenched by the ability to instantly access whatever we feel we need, drives a whole new level of awareness. But it’s more than being able to find out what information we need from reputable, balanced sources. We are becoming our own publishers, and everything from the information we demand or even originate, to our own thoughts, opinions, feelings and emotions, are on offer and can be shared. The sphere of influence we each possess is tremendous and growing all the time. Anyone can be an expert. Fact and fiction in their various guises combine to clarify and confuse in equal measure.
The third element in this changing dynamic involves brands themselves. Against the backdrop of constant customer conversation, organisations are now under unparalleled scrutiny. From a basic slip in customer service to details of a board level fraud, nothing is sacred. Organisations and brands exist under a microscope, and whether the story is fact, fiction or a blend of the two, little momentum is needed to spread a story far and wide, instantly.
Simple fact: brands no longer control their own reputations independently. Consequently the impact of these new reputation rules means a typical, dated brand-building objective like ‘raising awareness’ is no longer possible in isolation. So how can a B2B brand change its approach and combine the need for awareness with that of the need to manage its own reputation?
1. Set new objectives
This is a simple, but hugely overlooked, step. Raising awareness through the visibility of a logo and creative identity is just one part of a much more complex, but potentially far more rewarding approach. If this new landscape can be summed up by the idea of your customers and prospects having a conversation, then you need to consider how you can support the positive parts of this conversation, while addressing negative elements in the most appropriate way.
2. Concentrate on your core
There remains a vital role in creating and maintaining your brand core, in the traditional sense. Be clear on its values and mission, the messages that are relevant to particular audiences, and of course the identity that fronts it all up. When you and others in your business do have the opportunity to communicate to your audiences you’ll all be coming from the same brand point of view.
3. Understand the new landscape
Much has already been written about the ‘rules of social media engagement’, but remember it’s not just social media that has changed the way external reputation can have an impact a brand. It’s essential that your brand is able to respond to customer and prospect queries, questions and issues as swiftly and fairly as possible. Provide even one customer with anything less than your best service, and their negative view of the brand could cause countless issues. As a rule of thumb it’s quicker and more cost effective to prevent issues before they arise.
4. Take a strategic approach
B2B brands have a range of tools that sit under the marketing banner which have been vital for raising awareness; sponsorship being a good example. These tools are still very important, but the way they’re used should change. Instead of sponsoring an event as purely a means of increasing visibility of your brand identity and as a form of corporate entertainment, how can the activity help to share what is positive about your brand to a wider audience? Arts sponsorship is used by many B2B organisations as a way of implying a commitment to creativity and the arts.
5. Watch and listen
Be mindful of what your audiences are actually saying. An issue with service and the resulting negative impact on reputation needs to be identified and where possible, addressed. Similarly if the brand is being advocated this can be capitalised on, if handled sympathetically. In the case of social media, even simple monitoring can be valuable as a first step.
In reality, building a brand and reputation guidance strategy is more complex than a few tips can outline, and the response will be different for every B2B brand. What is universal is the need to understand the landscape and the influence and importance of the factors already discussed. This intelligence can support a new approach to brand strategy that reaches beyond awareness building, and instead reinforces reputation and long-term governance. While the ability to ‘control’ reputation has changed, the opportunity then comes through understanding your customers and other relevant audiences, as a means of harnessing their support and advocacy - another tool to support a positive reputation.
There is evidence that many brands are already innovating in how they employ these, and other, activations as long term brand and reputation tools while injecting the brand’s values into the mix. And rightly so - the commercial reality is becoming even more evident. Without an active approach to countering this growing challenge, organisations put profitability and long-term growth at risk.