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What’s in a name?
Why companies should worry less about their reputations

The Economist (Schumpeter) Apr 21st 2012 | from the print edition

PEOPLE have been debating reputation since the beginning of history. The Bible says that a “good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold.” Others have dismissed reputation as insubstantial—a “shadow” in Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, or an “uncertain flame” in James Lowell’s. Shakespeare provided material for both sides: Cassio described reputation as “the immortal part of myself”, while Iago dismissed it as “an idle and most false imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”

Today’s management-theory industry has no time for such equivocation. For its acolytes, reputation—or at least the corporate kind—is a “strategic asset” that can be “leveraged” to gain “competitive advantage”, a “safety buffer” that can be called upon to protect you against “negative news”, and a stock of “organisational equity” that can be increased by “engaging with the stakeholder community”.
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How successful are reputation consultancies in rendering the intangible measurable and manageable? The Reputation Institute has produced some intriguing results. Americans and Britons are more impressed with “old-economy” firms than “new-economy” ones.
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Nevertheless, there are three objections to the reputation-management industry. The first is that it conflates many different things—from the quality of a company’s products to its relationship with NGOs—into a single notion of “reputation”. It also seems to be divided between public-relations specialists (who want to put the best possible spin on the news) and corporate-social-responsibility types (who want the company to improve the world and be thanked for it).

Reputation as a by-product
The second objection is that the industry depends on a naive view of the power of reputation: that companies with positive reputations will find it easier to attract customers and survive crises. It is not hard to think of counter-examples. Tobacco companies make vast profits despite their awful reputations. Everybody bashes Ryanair for its dismal service and the Daily Mail for its mean-spirited journalism. But both firms are highly successful.
The biggest problem with the reputation industry, however, is its central conceit: that the way to deal with potential threats to your reputation is to work harder at managing your reputation. The opposite is more likely: the best strategy may be to think less about managing your reputation and concentrate more on producing the best products and services you can.
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In his “Autobiography” John Stuart Mill argued that the best way to attain happiness is not to make happiness your “direct end”, but to fix your mind on something else. Happiness is the incidental by-product of pursuing some other worthy goal. The same can be said of reputation.

Comments by Jerry Mager

Jerry Mager April 22nd 2012

“ Au village, sans prétention, / J’ai mauvaise réputation. / … les brav’s gens n’aiment pas que / L’on suive une autre route qu’eux,” croons Georges Brassens.

But, in Shakespeare’s plays what always is at stake and in the very centre of actions and thoughts are the reputations of the women. In Othello it is Desdemona’s, in Hamlet it is Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s. The same with Lady Macbeth, the three Lear daughthers, Portia and Jessica and the many others.
Cassio and Iago and all the rest of the men are mere decoys which allow the Bard to manipulate the reputation of the lady in an indirect manner without giving offence and yet hightening the suspense. That is because such a reputation is far too delicate to deal with in a direct way. A true and genuine lady not even is for the yearning let alone for the turning. In Othello it is Desdemona who gains and loses reputation several times over in the most delicate and intricate ways. Mostly even subliminally to the spectator-reader-listener.

Economist: “Americans and Britons are more impressed with “old-economy” firms than “new-economy” ones.” The reason why most Americans are so impressed is because they are impressed with Britons in particular and with Europeans in general. Americans are impressed with what they believe stands for culture and tradition. Why else would wealthy Americans bother buying English and Scottish castles including the certificate which stipulates and guarantees that the family ghost should move along across the Atlantic and must keep up haunting and rattling chains in the USA? Such Americans are portrayed in a humorous way in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ ; it is fun reading about snobs being snubbed by snobs who at the same time are being snubbed in their turn. How about this impossible one of Wilde’s: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
Economist: “…. that the industry depends on a naive view of the power of reputation: that companies with positive reputations will find it easier to attract customers and survive crises. It is not hard to think of counter-examples. Tobacco companies make vast profits despite their awful reputations. Everybody bashes Ryanair for its dismal service and the Daily Mail for its mean-spirited journalism. But both firms are highly successful.”
I think that awful reputations do not matter a single bit. The point here is that being a company one has to have a reputation, never mind whether it be an impeccable or a sordid one. Having a name, sporting a brand, means carrying a reputation. Willy-nilly.
As it happens to be the case with ladies, I could think of quite a few circumstances where I would very much prefer a lady with a racy reputation rather than doing business with ‘une carte blanche.’

There maybe more than three objections to the reputation-management industry but they all are easily subsumed under that same denominator: commodification. A reputation cannot be commodified and yet that is exactly what these slippery sleek customers try do and therefore they are not dealing with reputations at all. If you want to see real reputation-management watch ‘The Godfather.’
The best persiflage about this whole reputation-industry business that springs to my mind now is the movie ‘My name is Nobody’ where young Nobody (Terence Hill) is trying to make a name for himself by pseudo-emulating the reputation of the famous gunfighter Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) who is about to retire. Plenty of mirrors, glasses, guns and gimmicks in this picture. It even became a hit in ancientGreece where Homer is said to have fashioned Odysseus after this American spaghettiwestern-character and made him dupe the cyclop Polyphemus by tricking him with the name of Nobody. The Greeks, however, overdid and now are stuck with having to make themselves known time and again as Nobodies throughoutEurope and the rest of the world. Lately the Greek politicians hired a PRagency to ameliorate the country’s reputation in the hope of bringing down the borrowing rate on the bondmarkets but the rating agencies were not impressed. Nobody is.

Barry Mackenzie in reply to Jerry Mager / April 25th , 2012, 22:41

What????

Jerry Mager April 26th, 2012

@ Barry Mackenzie, I am very sorry but I can’t help you out here. Polyphemus asked WHO blinded him, not WHAT …

I suppose Homer here tries to build up Ulysses’s /Odysseus’s reputation by making him trick the rather dimwitted Polyphemus – not much of a match for the wily man of many turns. I am not certain about Homers intentions though and I suggest you send him an sms asking him to clarify?
After all the Greek do not prove themselves that cunning and clever considering the fact that they eventually were caught out having cooked their books in order to enter into the eurozone.
Theirs was a premeditated intention to deceive and dupe the rest of euro-members: a perfect classical Trojan Horse. Now the Greek are stuck with a lousy reputation and they suffer the consequences.

Their reputation is a lousy one in more than one respect. First they proved themselves untrustworthy, second they did a clumsy job with those books of theirs, third they hired some consultants from the House of Goldman Sachs to help them with their creative bookkeeping, which was a double dumb move I think. Actually Goldman Sachs first helped Greece to deceive the Euro countries whose politicians felt themselves obliged to bail out the swindler member country at huge costs and now feel themselves being held to ransom.
Though the icing of the Goldman Sachs cake to me is GS providing for the three technocrats (the three Master Consultants, i.e. the Magi: Monti, Draghi and Papademos) who now run the show. So Goldman Sachs creates her own cash cow, generates her own sources of income and establishes her sources of profit entirely by her own wits. With the help(?) of politicians – of course one will never be able to tell exactly who, when, why, how but beneath every official account, behind any conventional story, there usually is more than one narrative which is far more probable, sometimes even true.

The respective national politicians are completely marginalized and take their orders from Goldman Sachs via the Magi – I surmise. The main thing these politicians do is trying hard to keep up the appearance that they still have the initiative and govern us, quod non. Of course Goldman Sachs lets them play their roles, up to a point that is. But ultimately it always will be Goldman Sachs who calls the shots and we – the voters and citizens of the Eurozone countries – are allowed to live our phantasmagoria and think that we decide our own futures in the most sophisticated democratic way there is.
I wonder what Homer would say to all this. One of these days I might send him an email myself.


LINKS

http://www.analysebrassens.com/?page=texte&id=1&%23

http://tegenlicht.vpro.nl/nieuws/2012/februari/-Goldman-will-get-back-to-you–.html

http://www.presseurop.eu/nl/content/author/202341-marc-roche

http://www.presseurop.eu/fr/content/article/1175791-goldman-sachs-la-banque-qui-nous-veut-du-bien

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ns9CLZdXosM

http://www.wikileaks-forum.com/index.php?topic=3243.15

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