A few weeks ago I was browsing eBay in search of a leaving gift for a colleague when I stumbled across a book with a title that made me smile: What Got You Here Won't Get You There. I immediately hit the 'Buy it Now' button and reflected on how perfectly this summarised the challenges of developing a brand reputation strategy at eBay.
Redefining a reputation is no easy challenge. This is especially true when you are one of the most recognised brands in the world.
eBay became one of the world's most loved brands by making shopping fun, giving everyone the opportunity to buy and sell globally from their living rooms. The novelty of auctions made shopping a game, with competitive spirits battling to defeat their rivals. Yet this image doesn't reflect the reality of today's eBay. Now, auctions make up a shrinking minority of sales, and the hobby sellers of old sell alongside thousands of SMEs and the biggest high street brands.
The challenge is to ensure perceptions keep pace with the evolving reality, but without losing what made the brand special in the first place.
If done sincerely and with long-term commitment, a brand reputation strategy should achieve two things. First, it should highlight where your company is strongest - the credible territory on which to engage positively with stakeholders and customers. Second, it should seek to contextualise your issues - the things you'd rather were not associated with your brand but are.
For eBay, it was clear that our strongest asset was the 160,000 entrepreneurial businesses thriving on our site. With no-one else able to articulate the challenges facing online entrepreneurs, this was a rich and credible place for us to occupy. A strategy that focused on championing the needs and concerns of the firms that power the UK economy gave eBay the ability to forge strong relationships across an array of stakeholders, politicians and media.
Crucially, this strategy has proven beneficial in contextualising the issues that inevitably arise. We have shown that a focused strategy can have a positive effect on issues management. Since we launched the Online Business Index (our barometer of the performance and attitudes of online SMEs) in March 2009, we have seen a 50 per cent reduction in negative coverage in the UK, and a 66 per cent reduction in Germany.
As a global phenomenon that grew up in the public eye, it hasn't always been easy for eBay to separate itself from the early days of the internet and the issues that come simply by virtue of the fact that it was the first.
If the first decade for eBay was about defining the standards for global e-commerce, then the next decade will be about defining the new retail - the way in which online and offline shopping is evolving and blurring. The pace of this convergence demonstrates how consumer behaviour is undergoing another revolution similar to the one that created eBay 15 years ago. Just as established brands had to shape up when the internet arrived, we understand the need to adapt and grasp the opportunities around mobile, digital, local and social. And we want to lead, not follow.
eBay has demonstrated that it is possible to reshape and build a reputation while losing none of the magic of a brand that is universally loved. It is not an easy thing to accomplish, and the number of brands that continue to focus their comms on the issues that undermined their reputation in the first place makes the point better than any book I stumbled across on eBay.
Views in brief
Which historical figure would have been a great reputation manager?
Niccolo Machiavelli. The undisputed master of understanding reputation management, Machiavelli's teachings in The Prince centre on decisions, how they are made and how they are perceived by those around us. He espoused the need to pick a side depending on what you wanted that decision to say about you and wisely stated that every issue or debate comes down to which side you chose. As with any reputation, however, it is shaped by the opinions of others and sadly history has traduced his reputation, leaving him very much misunderstood. Sound familiar?