Paradoxes of perception

Branding can shape our idea of what a company, product or service is all about, but a brand must match up to its reputation in the real world. Why otherwise would Coca-Cola insist that it is 'the real thing'?

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation ... All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.' A Harvard Business Review editorial? The latest business guru's conference keynote speech? Not quite. The next line, one of the most famous in the history of thought, gives the authors away: 'All that is solid melts into air ...'

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were acute observers - indeed, admirers - of the destructive energies of capitalism. They understood that markets destroy fixed points of reference, leaving us to find our own way in the world. But capitalism is no fool and soon recruited new armies of workers to shape meaning for us. 'PR' supposedly stands for public relations but really describes perception reconstruction.

Companies have come to see their 'brand' - the general perception of who and what they are - as a key ingredient in their success or failure. PR, branding and communications agencies specialise in the objectives of the Victorian deportment teacher: creating the right impression. Certain attributes will be highlighted: honesty is often not the best policy. Virgin wants its brand to be about adventure and fun, not long check-in lines. BP wants to be seen as a caring friend of the environment, not a dirty old oil company. Ratners wants to be seen as purveyor of enchantment and romance, rather than a seller of 'crap'.

There's no doubt that perception management has commercial value. People's perceptions are not fragments of 'reality'. They are accounts of the world, mini-stories from which we build our world-picture. And psychologists have shown that once we have incorporated a particular perception into our version of reality, we'll reinforce it at every turn. If I hold the view that women are terrible drivers, I'll make careful note of every terrible woman driver I see and gloss over the terrible men and competent women. By a process of subconscious selection, we gather evidence to support our existing view. We re-assure ourselves - and brands can be part of this process of self-affirmation.

So once a company has established a brand, it can survive a few knocks. But perceptions are not immutable, either on an individual or an institutional level: a reputation for integrity can be destroyed by one indiscretion. And the paradox is that the greater the reputation, the further the holder of it has to fall.

There is also some truth to the old PR maxim that perception is reality - or that perception and reality can reinforce each other. If a club gets a reputation for being the place where cool people hang out, then cool people will go there, and the venue will, as a result, deliver on its promise: this is where prophecy becomes self-fulfilling.

The rise of internet-based trading is likely to increase the importance of brand perception, too: in the anonymity of cyberspace, customers will welcome the reassurance of familiar, trusted gatekeepers. Two of the three companies with fastest-rising brand value are Google (1st) and eBay (3rd), according the latest Business Week/Interbrand survey. Appropriately, the firm nestled between them is Starbucks. Together, these firms have brands worth $22 billion.

So a post-modern consumer can bid online for and download an e-book on Seduction with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and then sip a mocha while googling a prospective date. By comparison to these solid-into-air brands, the biggest brand-value leakers of last year were Kodak, Heinz and Intel: pics, beans and chips just don't measure up any more.

Perception cannot outrun reality for ever, though. If a person or organisation consistently departs from the behaviour implied by their reputation, the truth will out. And the danger is that overselling a brand makes it vulnerable to later disappointment when reality palpably fails to match up to it: David Cameron, the Conservative party leader, may be starting to suffer from this syndrome. Sometimes it is better to be quietly solid.

The movement for corporate social responsibility is another case in point. In its early stages, it was driven by a PR agenda, but within major corporations, it has become apparent that corporate responsibility is about the way firms do business - hard issues like corruption, supplier-chain scrutiny and gender equality rather than the sales team volunteering to paint a local old people's home over the weekend. Responsibility can't, in the end, be faked.

It's striking that many of the terms used to define good brands are the same as those with which we describe good people: trustworthy, honest, dependable and - as in MT's survey - admirable. Brands are the organisational equivalent of the now slightly quaint idea of a person's character. And perhaps, in the wake of the dynamic destructiveness of capitalism, character is all we are left with. Far from providing an escape from reality, the market ruthlessly forces us to face it. In the continuation of their famous phrase, Marx and Engels suggest just this: '... all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.' Why otherwise would Coca-Cola, still the world's number one brand, insist that it is 'the real thing'?

- Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail:

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