In our decades of working with businesses to help build and maintain their reputations, clear patterns have emerged about where best to focus activity, based on the current perception of the business among important stakeholders. We thought it would be useful to outline these four key positions here, along with some pointers about where your focus should lie. Every business will have its own nuanced issues, so this isn’t meant to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. But it will at least provide a starting point and provide some of the right questions to ask yourself. In this post we are referring to product – but the theory applies equally to a service-led business.
Strong product, strong reputation
If you have a strong product and a well-deserved reputation, you are clearly doing all the right things. Beware of resting on your laurels. The best thing you can do in this situation is ask yourself what more you could be doing to encourage your existing fans to become more vocal brand ambassadors. There is nothing more powerful than a satisfied customer telling their friends about you. And I don’t just mean via testimonials on your website… You want people talking (in person!) about you to their networks. Sharing links to your website on their personal social media feeds. And reviewing you on their blogs or personal websites. Although this is a fantastic place to be, if you get complacent, your hard won reputation could be put at risk.
Strong product, weak reputation
Perhaps your product is new, and your reputation is almost non-existent (as you’d expect). If you are building your reputation from the ground up, your focus should be on your product, service and company behaviour. There’s one thing that successful companies think about beyond simply the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their businesses: the ‘why’. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, I’d highly recommend you take 15 minutes to watch this talk by Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why.
As adoption of your product or service begins to grow, you will hopefully start to receive customer feedback that reinforces how great it is. This is the point at which it pays dividends for you to start checking where your target audiences are active online. Are they avid social media users? If so, which platforms do they use? Do they go to events? If so, which ones? Are they likely to be members of networks or forums? Are they active in their local communities? What do they read or watch? And how? By doing this, you can build customer personas to help you identify the best channels to reach them, and help you shape your story in the most compelling way.
And then comes the time to think about communications – both with existing customers, and with prospects (not to mention employees!). This might include traditional PR, but equally it might be best just to start building important one-on-one relationships with key influencers in the early days. Identify the journalists who are most likely to be interested in what you do, and get to know them. Bring a small group of customers together in person so you can better understand their experiences with your product or service. Think about rewarding customers with random acts of kindness for positive comments they make about you online.
Weak product, strong reputation
The ultimate goal is to reach a point where you have a strong product, backed by a strong reputation. This will only happen if you operate consistently, in line with your core values and purpose, from day one.
The most dangerous place to be is to have a hard-won reputation that is being let down by your product or service. When these gaps arise between what you say you do and what you actually do, you are opening yourself up for exposure. This situation is not uncommon for high-growth businesses that may be struggling to scale at the pace the market demands. Don’t let anyone push you beyond the point of being able to service your customers in the way they have become accustomed. When it comes to reputation, short-term wins can come at a significant long-term cost.
A good example of a company potentially facing this issue today is Tesla. Elon Musk has built an incredible product, with customers who are more akin to evangelists. But he is at risk of being a victim of his own success. In three years, Tesla has gone from producing something like 400 cars a week, to close to 2,000. It has a stated goal to reach 500,000 per year by 2018. And the not-yet-available Model 3 will contribute significantly to these numbers. But as the company experiences astronomical growth, driven by a beautiful product, customers are beginning to grumble…publicly. In Denmark, owners are having to wait 2 to 3 months for a service. The cost of repair to any Tesla damage is getting lots of airtime among disgruntled owners. And what used to be exciting software updates bringing fun and practical new additions to the car have turned into a very regular series of mere bug fixes, according to discussions on a UK Facebook Group dedicated to owners.
So what’s a brand to do? It’s easier said than done, but at some point growth might need to stall, in order to keep up the great reputation. In addition, increased communications with customers at a time like this is even more important. Perhaps Elon ought to be engaging more directly with owners, sharing the ongoing narrative and reinforcing the ability for the Tesla fans to fan the positive flames. People can generally excuse imperfection, but if it is accompanied by silence from the brand, it is never going to go down well.
Weak product, weak reputation
Well, if you know your product is weak, then you also likely know that your poor reputation is well-deserved. The important thing at this stage is to identify where the real problem lies. Is it with the product itself? Is it with the product/market fit? Is it perhaps with customer-service or after-care? It is worth doing some pretty in-depth research to uncover just what the real issue is so that you can begin to address it at an operational level – before you do any PR.