A new year is characterized by renewal and the opportunity to set ambitious goals for the organizations we represent.
This year, you’re probably wondering how you can renew your reputation, or how establishing your purpose can help you avoid social and moral disengagement with your customers and employees. Yet for all the talk of corporate purpose, and the reputational benefits earned through its pursuit, there is a lack of guidance on how to measure reputation’s existence and value.
Studies have long shown that your conviction to do good will lead customers to spend more, recommend you more, and remain loyal. Yet they seldom describe the mechanisms that brand managers can use to benchmark and track reputation.
Over the past decade, companies have increasingly magnified their reputation by taking a stance on issues and contributing to causes. The shoppers of the 2020s are looking beyond product and marketing and considering your brand reputation when buying.
A recent global study found that 62% of consumers want companies to take a stand on pressing issues such as fair employment practices, immigration, data privacy and climate change. In the same study, nearly half of consumers (48%) would publicly complain about their disappointment with a company whose words or actions are misaligned with their personal values, and one-fifth of consumers (21%) said they’d abandon that brand out of frustration and would never return.
If Apple were to lose a fifth of its value for saying the wrong thing, the number of dollars lost would be roughly equivalent to the number of stars in our galaxy. In 2020, reputation is astronomically consequential. Shoppers can no longer be viewed as a homogenous, singular group.
Reputation is, by definition, opinions held. Like beauty, it is subjective, mercurial, and challenging to categorize. The key to the art of measuring reputation is knowing your audience—ideally, every single member of your audience.
Precisely measuring the opinions held by each individual customer is an intoxicating, futuristic dream for marketing scientists. It isn’t easy. Your customers differ from one another, and though they may cluster into defined segments, it is wrong to paint them with broad strokes.
Although reputation is connected to a company’s actions, it’s also at the mercy of perceptions. As Shakespeare lays out in “Othello,” reputation “is oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” With audience variation in mind, start with understanding what can be measured.
Benchmarking: Giving your measurement value and context
Social and digital media have opened the world to understanding opinions as never before. Recognizing that individuals hold disparate and shared opinions, analysis of publicly declared opinions through reviews, forums or political actions can initially classify the vocal majority in groups ranging from detractors to evangelists.
Your “audience classification” methodology could be as simple as reading the results of a survey and assigning categories to respondents, or as comprehensive as using machine learning to order the topics contained within billions of tweets against the demographics of the Twitter users posting them.
Your first objective is to collect the data that represents your customer’s opinion about your company, product or industry, and to assign a value to that opinion that can contribute to a benchmark. You can look for endorsements or complaints, survey whether people would recommend you, tabulate the star ratings they give you on review platforms, or ask them why they said what they said, especially if it was offered in response to your brand purpose.
Natural language processing techniques can be used to identify and organize opinion by sentiment, emotion and complexity. Or, you can just read what your customers say and write down what it means.
The more you tie these opinions to the individual’s identity or persona, the better you’ll understand why they hold that opinion.
For example, consider married women, ages 34-54 with at least one child, who report in a survey that they haven’t purchased your product but would consider doing so if part of the profit supported a cause they believe in. You designate this audience “conscientious moms” and observe that they are three times more likely to use the word “love” on Facebook when mentioning sustainable brands, compared to other moms. Your understanding of their motivations is enriched through segmentation.
Next, do this exercise on your competitors, using the same technique in order to have a common standard between brands. As your data grow and your methodology becomes more sophisticated, you will adjust the benchmark and the criteria for success in your measurement.
Tracking: Measurement over time with a focus on trends
Create a system in which you are continually testing and seek out variations in that signal. This isn’t simply measuring Share of Voice; this is a measure of the quality and nature of that voice.
Statistical topic modeling can be used to understand large volumes of text (tweets, blogs or news), particularly in detecting latent threats to your brand or major shifts in opinion.
Whether using statistics, issuing brand health studies through a survey platform, or setting up a comment box in your lobby, you must determine how opinion at the beginning of your measurement period compares against that at the end, doing so through metrics such as consideration, purchase intent or likelihood to recommend.
The tracking phase is also when you build on your benchmark—by collecting more data on what people do. A secondary analysis of unstated expressions of opinion can now be layered on the taxonomy you’ve defined in benchmarking. Add the dimension of quiet consumer judgment through metrics like website bounce rate, unsubscribes or downvotes for each audience segment.
Tweets and news were just the beginning; for every stated opinion there are a thousand more that play out in consumer decisions and actions.
You can observe these responses by looking at who reads your website and lingers on the section about your causes or seeing which “responsibility” keywords drive traffic to your product page in search engines. Assigning a value like “percentage of search traffic originating from responsibility keywords” makes this behavior relatable and identifiable throughout your company.
Collecting these metrics, weighting them and merging them into a single score with the opinion data can provide a reputation algorithm and a simple, communicative medium that references the benchmark to convey its value and meaning.
Setting goals for this score motivates you to adjust your communications and marketing to strategies that are working. Tracking this score bolsters your understanding of how reputation changes in response to news, reviews, competitors, pricing and more.
Returning to your purpose
With a benchmark that your organization agrees on and tracking metrics that build a picture of brand reputation over time, it’s important to return to what shapes your reputation: your purpose. Taking what you’ve learned about how competitors live up to their purpose, and observing how consumers respond to the effort, consider how you might take a stronger stance and refine your purpose to better align your core values and the values of your audience.
Many companies have achieved their lofty reputation by making the best and most innovative products or offering prices so low you can’t ignore them. Yet increasingly, these qualities compete with how good (or not) you are in the world, and the “good” bar keeps getting higher.
Despite the rising stakes, rather than prompting a race to the bottom of quality and cost among competitors, adopting a sense of purpose is an opportunity for brands to be part of something larger than the products and services they create. Purpose aligns brands with communities and incentivizes employees and employers with something beyond profit. Purpose, plus the reputation it inspires, has an enduring value.
The study of reputation will transform. The benchmark will move, and the tools you use to measure it may improve, but reputation’s fragility and tendency to shift are predictable and measurable. This year you’ve been given a new opportunity to improve the world, and if you do so and customers know it, they will reward you.
Reputation is more than a means to an end; it is the metric of our relationships and a modern litmus test for our potential.
As Vince Lombardi said, “The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.” This decade, let’s do more and measure up to the promise of purpose.