Weathering a Storm: The Critical Distinction Between Brand and Reputation in Times of Crisis

An institution’s, company’s, or even an individual’s brand is interconnected with its reputation—so much so that the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. However, reputation and brand have important distinctions. While the two are not mutually exclusive, it is important to distinguish between your institution’s brand and its reputation and work on maintaining both, especially during (or in anticipation of) times of crisis.

Your reputation is a general assessment of your institution — sometimes based on comparing points of parity with other institutions, other times to public perceptions of the industry itself. For colleges and universities, reputation can be tied to the sometimes-dreaded rankings (i.e. U.S. News & World Report, Businessweek), stigmas associated with the type of institution (i.e. community college, liberal arts, etc.), or general media attention to the value of higher education.

Your brand, on the other hand, is the sum of all associations your audiences have with your institution — ideally with points of differentiation from competitors and consistency across interactions. Your brand can be boiled down to how your institution engages with the world and what faculty, staff, current students, alumni, and other stakeholders consistently value about their relationship with your institution.

A strong brand can overpower a reputational dip; a weak brand becomes victim to a reputational threat. When institutions with strong reputations let brand maintenance slide, or when institutions with strong brands start taking their reputation for granted, they become more vulnerable to a crisis.

For an extreme example, think about Volkswagen and its emissions scandal. A historically strong brand — praised for the iconic “Think Small” campaign and the bold release of the “The Force” Super Bowl commercial— it could not withstand the negative impact of the “diesel dupe.” Looking at the Harris Poll ranking of The Reputation of America’s 100 Most Visible Companies, Volkswagen’s reputation has clearly plummeted. From 2015 to 2016, its reputation quotient score dropped 20.46 points from a ‘Very Good’ score of 75.21 to a ‘Very Poor’ score of 54.75. In 2017, the once-beloved brand has regained some ground and has a ‘Poor’ score of 63.46, but still ranks towards the bottom of the list — only one spot below cable behemoth Comcast and two below the scandal-plagued BP. However, in the face of adversity, the company continues to deliver a strong message focused on high quality, reliability, and fun. Only time will tell if Volkswagen will be able to shift brand associations away from the emissions debacle back to its desired brand messaging and fully recover its score.

While reputation and brand are closely correlated, acknowledging both the nuances and the interconnectedness of brand and reputation allows marketers and communications professionals to fairly measure efforts and create realistic benchmarks. You may not be able to overcome the negative associations from a reputational downturn as quickly as leadership would like. But, if your brand is truly integrated and consistently implemented, your intended brand associations can still shine through. A strong brand can endure and has the power to mend a weakened reputation.

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