A dozen years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Bezos, the visionary founder of Amazon. As our conversation turned to corporate reputation, he made this prediction: 'As more people shop online we will see brands being made or broken by the way they behave online.'
He was, of course, correct. There is more to managing reputation than ensuring smart transactional sites and secure payment systems. In other words, it is about how a company conducts itself as well as it what it sells.
This decade there will be increasing pressure on companies to take responsibility for the implications of their business model, upstream and downstream. Taking a leadership position is key to both corporate reputation and commercial competitiveness.
TLG's reports have shown how companies defined as Thought Leaders enjoy strong reputations. Crucially, they tend to be more 'trusted' than other brands. This is true here in Britain and in other markets such as the US and notably India, where we have recently conducted research.
Our evidence strongly shows that businesses seeking to develop their reputations should build Thought Leadership credentials using offline and online channels. However, the use of online channels to build corporate, as opposed to product brand, reputation is under-developed.
Too often such communication by corporate brands is either defensive - think of the 'we're not evil, honest' corporate Q&A sites - or passive - think of the typical corporate website and 'imaginative' iterations thereof.
What does Thought Leadership behaviour online look like? Let me give you an example from a sector not typically considered innovative - baby care products.
Johnson & Johnson, based in the US, has established a clear leadership position and narrative about 'healthy' in relation to maternal and infant health. More than a decade ago Johnson & Johnson became involved with and bought babycenter.com - think of a health-based Mumsnet. More recently the company has helped launch the 'text4baby' service, providing support for pregnant mothers, which promises to be a successful as Babycenter.
At one level the brand is providing a valuable service with no obvious financial gain - a kind of higher purpose PR. At another level, the brand is successfully defining what it stands for, and in doing so building a reputation as a trusted friend and partner. This can build greater brand loyalty, advocacy and market share.
TLG is developing evidence-based programmes to help businesses develop their Thought Leadership. We are publishing the first digital Index of Thought Leaders, which identifies businesses that are not based on the web but are using 'digital' most effectively to educate and influence their key stakeholders.
The index will generate insights into the businesses that key opinion former groups think are effectively engaging and influencing them online. Not only will this provide a good benchmark, but it will highlight the integration between on and offline messaging. These insights can generate a more effective approach to Thought Leadership campaigning.
In summary, it is difficult to define a compelling leadership position and deliver it using traditional media alone. Strategies to build reputation should focus on generating recognition for Thought Leadership through on and offline comms. The impact of these comms will be to generate a competitive advantage for businesses by enhancing permission to grow and protecting their licence to operate.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
How would you deal with an assault from UK Uncut on your clients?
Consumers' expectations will increase, as will their capacity to make an impact and even set an agenda. Businesses have to pre-empt issues by changing their behaviours. If the corporate position is reasonable they must take the debate to their critics - challenge them to a live debate, for example.
Which brand has gained most, reputation-wise, in the wake of the riots?
David Cameron captured the mood of the country and demonstrated his ability to make a 'core values' connection with voters. This crisis plays to his strengths and will be welcomed by the party's strategists.