Why brands need purpose in the age of Equifax and fake news

Lincoln Memorial

Abraham Lincoln once wrote: Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it and the tree is the real thing.

Those words from the 16th president of the US are as relevant today as they were when he penned them more than a century and a half ago. After all, there’s been great deal of recent talk around how incredibly important and fragile reputations are—especially in the business world.

We’ve all read about Equifax not only compromising the data of 145 million Americans but also poorly dealing with the aftermath. Digital giants have suffered after the revelations of how fake news and ads purchased by foreign adversaries on their platform may have swayed the electorate during the 2016 race for the White House. And brand safety issues have become of considerable concern to advertisers that invest in user-generated video sites.

While brand perception is top of mind for most organizations, few are taking concrete action to manage reputation and build trust with the public. The Reputation Institute recently surveyed 301 business leaders from 29 countries across 28 industries and found that 85 percent are still in the early stages of their reputation journey, while only 16 percent feel their organization has the full capabilities to manage reputation.

How do you build a tree to manifest the shadow you want, as Lincoln suggested? You do it by creating a clear set of core organizational values and upholding them. And don’t just make it any old tree.

A brand’s reputation affects facets of an organization from revenue to recruiting. Technology companies, in particular, must be vigilant about maintaining healthy reputations, given the demand for technical talent. In 2018, the battle for data scientists will border on vicious in tech markets — from Silicon Valley to Singapore.

We’ve seen what happens when brand reputations suffer. After the revelation of sexism and other workplace issues at Uber, engineers were warned not to have the company on their resume. A number of Silicon Valley companies have also been called out for a lack of diversity. None of that is good for any company as it jostles to get in front of available technologists, who will be needed in droves in the next decade.

Younger generations value altruistic impact more than they do salaries — increasingly, people want to work for and with companies whose values align with theirs. According to a Gallup poll, millennials are more likely to take a gig if they believe that the role gives their lives meaning—even if it means lower pay. In fact, “purpose” is the No. 1 thing they prioritize when job searching. In this environment, brands face more pressure to attract talent and partners while maintaining a healthy appeal with their existing employee base.

How do you create a reputation that speaks “purpose”? Instead of always trying to sell things, have your company endeavor to add value by educating and inspiring people. Act as a good organization, communicate authentically and stand up for the issues your company cares about.

There’s a lot at stake. An important company may want to partner with you, a talented candidate might want to work for you, a well-read analyst may want to research you—so give them a positive, reputational story to pass on.

Reputation certainly isn't an easy game to win. Advertisers in recent months have learned that their brand can be tarnished in a single moment by appearing next to extremist content or on a site that contradicts their ethos. Due to such developments, digital platforms are now taking heat from execs like Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard, who has publicly been taking tech companies to task over measurement problems. His valid points, more generally, underscore how the ad industry has lost sight in recent decades of what it was meant to do. Instead of talking about scale, efficiency and engagement, we now find ourselves mired in a tough kind of mud, focusing on ad inventory that’s unsafe or fraudulent. It’s a conversation we absolutely must have.

The bigger problem, however, is one of regaining purpose and trust as an industry. Otherwise, we risk unintentionally sabotaging the brands that invest in digital advertising. The space will regain its reputation only by offering quality content, transparent transactions and digital products that inspire top-shelf engagement.

And whether we are talking about an industry, a company or an individual, Honest Abe’s tree-and-shadow analogy still resonates. Are you nurturing a brand identity that’s character-driven and compelling when objectively observed?

Or are you giving folks reason to throw shade?

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