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How reputation management helps companies to meet new customer expectations - and to create sustainable demand

Last week, Interbrand published their 2019 Best Global Brands Report1, the world's most prestigious ranking of big players' brand values. An analysis of the most interesting developments shows that the zeitgeist prevailing in society is reflected in a critical evaluation of the reputation of some brands and thus also in their brand value.

Customer expectations are developing faster and faster, big brands feel the pressure. At the top of the ranking of the most valuable brands in the world, there has not yet been any significant change, with Apple and Google leading the ranking for the seventh consecutive year. However, their gains are in single-digit percentages only. But here, there are several reasons besides the growing customer expectations for these findings.

Facebook loses USD 5.3 billion in brand value

The results become more interesting and concrete when taking a closer look at the former growth champion of recent years. Facebook has been in the Best Global Brands ranking since 2012, recording constant growth rates of up to 54 percent (in 2015) over the first five years. This year, though, Facebook slipped from 9th to 14th place after a twelve percent decline and is therefore no longer in the top ten.

“Apparently, more and more people are questioning the influence that Facebook as a platform has on current social developments,” says Simon Thun, CEO of Interbrand CEE, about the weak performance of the former shooting star - and hits the mark. The public debate about the socio-political role of major technology brands such as Google (with YouTube) and Facebook is becoming more critical, and the demand for regulation is becoming louder.

Empty promises of Facebook and Google

While Facebook in particular claims to meet these demands for stricter controls on content in the future, the reality is completely different. Facebook’s monitoring algorithm may find graphic elements such as swastikas and runes or linguistic terms such as “foreigner” and “home country” and can bring them into a socio-political context. However, the search algorithm cannot read between the lines. Even if questionable statements in critical posts are determined electronically and checked by human intelligence in a second step, the sheer mass of postings, comments, photo and video uploads worldwide remains so immense that control and regulation is in fact simply impossible.

Finding and, above all, classifying e.g. hate speech in social media content in all countries, languages, and cultures of the world would require an army of neutral experts. The involvement of the community which can report dubious content does not make a significant contribution either since neither expertise nor neutrality is given. In this respect, authorities and politicians worldwide reveal huge naivety that goes hand in hand with equally inadequate digital competence - leaving experts from the digital industry speechless for years.

Facebook and Google / YouTube will never be able to keep their promises. And that brings us to reputation management as we understand it - or to the diametrically opposed understanding of it. Reputation management starts at the very core of a company, not just where messages are conveyed to the outside world. The good reputation of a company and a brand is increasingly based on credibility and authenticity. As one of the world's leading brand consultancies with more than 40 years of experience, our industry colleagues from Interbrand have no difficulty in drawing the right conclusion: “In a world where customer expectations will continue to move faster than businesses, brands can no longer be considered separate to businesses,” says Charles Trevail, Global CEO of Interbrand. “Today, more than ever, brands will be judged on what they do, not just what they say.”

Has the German automotive industry really understood the warning signs?

The contradiction of “being” and “appearing” applies to the troubled German automotive industry, too. While Mercedes-Benz, BMW, VW, Audi, Porsche and MINI recorded growth rates of up to 18 percent in previous years, the brand values of the six German car brands currently grow by an average of only five percent (between Porsche’s nine percent and BMW’s one percent). Volkswagen, for example, assures that the proportion of electric cars in their fleet will increase to at least 40 percent by 20302, but this promise comes - if I may say so - at least ten years too late. During the last decade, the German automotive industry has lost its credibility through Diesel-gate and fraud on the consumer and, hence, lost accordingly in the growth of brand value.

So far, the promises of the automobile brands are still only promises. Relevant deeds are still to be delivered. However, it is not yet too late for a “reputational turnaround”. To achieve this, these so-called “best global brands” must now actually invest tens of billions in the (their!) future, - in the development of alternative forms of drive, but also in infrastructure. Mind you, per year, and without an investment quotas brake. The planned investments of the automotive industry are only peanuts in relation to their possibilities - and in view of the investment gap, they have created for at least ten years. They now need to act quickly and decisively. If the industry only fixes what was missed in the last ten years and continues like this for another ten years, the big investment in development will be accompanied by steadily increasing costs for the “reputational turnaround” - and the longer the more difficult it becomes. Because even if the first steps are done, the industry will continue to be criticized by the public for a long time, as it has badly lost the consumers’ trust.

In the situation of Facebook and YouTube on the other hand, a “reputational turnaround” is even more difficult to achieve, as control mechanisms for critical content as shown would devour enormous sums. Here it is probably easier and much cheaper for the company to keep a social media platform “somehow alive and running” for as long as possible and at the same time to look for an alternative platform with a (still in the medium term!) intact reputation (a rogue, who thinks of Instagram now - and the consequent question, what’s next?).

So, what can good reputation management do?

Let’s go back to the damage that actually can be repaired. Even the best reputation management in the world cannot turn a desert into a blooming landscape. However, in prioritizing communication measures, it may highlight the positive content that corresponds to customer expectations - thus helping companies in twofold respect.

First, communication shows that the signals from society and customers’ expectations are being understood (in this context, the claim of another car manufacturer also very widespread in Germany, "We have understood", from 1994 (!) suits perfectly - and unintentionally takes on self-ironic traits). Here too, however, the messages and claims must, of course, be followed by verifiable, tangible actions.

Second, communication with the aim of promoting “quick wins” in reputation management can make its contribution in order to actually generate a genuine, sustainable reputation management in the long term. Targeted communication for the above-mentioned measures, such as those promoted relatively offensively by Volkswagen, can have a positive impact on consumers and society in general, even if these are only peanut investments for the company. By demonstrating the relevance of these peanuts, these contents, by evaluating the success of the communication measures, a rethinking within the company can be driven forward. Positive customer feedback will point the management in the right direction, away from greenwashing, hesitation and empty promises, towards change - ultimately convincing companies to turn peanut investments into relevant investments.

After all, the motivation for this development could be purely economic. Demand will grow with growing confidence in the company and in technology, just as the number of e-cars sold will grow with the number of charging stations. Here, the trench must be overcome, the chicken or egg dilemma has to be solved - if not by politicians, then by the manufacturers themselves. Good reputation management does not aim at trends to satisfy hipsters and appear in a good light at short-term goals but to turn trends into sustainable developments and ensure a positive reputation for the company over time. Once a company's damaged reputation has been credibly restored through real performance and investment, sustainable demand and long-term profit will result.

By: Mats Wappmann, Berlin

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1 https://www.interbrand.com/best-brands/best-global-brands/2019/ranking/

2 https://www.volkswagen-newsroom.com/de/pressemitteilungen/volkswagen-plant-22-millionen-e-autos-in-zehn-jahren-4750

“It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” says Warren Buffet. A quote which, thanks to digitalization, is even more true today than it was ever before. But what happens after those critical five minutes when things just don’t go the way they should, or even worse, what if you are negatively portrayed in media without any wrongdoing on your part (think ‘Fake News’)? Will your reputation be tarnished forever, or do you have a right to be forgotten?

The right to be forgotten is a concept that involves the idea of every person having the right to have his or her personal information, which is somehow available on the internet, deleted. The most popular case occurred in Spain in 2014, when Mario Costeja González asked Google to delete links to an old newspaper articles about his bankruptcy. The piece, just 36 words long and dating back from 1998, had a prominent position among Googles’ search result. He argued that the information was outdated and had no legitimacy to still be found. The case was brought to the European Court of Justice. The court ruled that search engines as data controllers are obliged to consider deletion requests if they are justified. The result of this case was, that Google, as soon as facts about it were made public, was overrun with deletion requests. However, this did not solve Mr. Costeja Conzáles problem and in fact, the victory was pyrrhic: While he had concerns about 36 words prior to the court case, 850 articles in the world’s largest media outlets were published the day after the court ruled in favour of him. The famous Streisand effect caught up with him. That was not the only problem, though. In this specific case, only Google Spain was taken to court, which means that the link was still accessible on pages in other languages. Moreover, the right to be forgotten is in direct conflict with the notion of an open web and a free flow of information. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, describes the EU’s right to be forgotten as “deeply immoral”. The biggest critics argue that this so-called right represents a step towards media censorship.

The Basics

The General Data Protection Regulation or in short GDPR, which went into effect in all EU Member States on 25 May 2018, regulates the “right to erasure” in Art. 17. The title of this article contains the addition in brackets "Right to be forgotten". However, the provision mainly contains rights and obligations to delete certain data. Only Article 17.2 continues with the idea of the right to be forgotten, to prevent or reverse the (further) dissemination of personal data (in particular on the internet), at least to some extent. The regulation reads as follows:

Where the controller has made the personal data public and is obliged pursuant to paragraph 1 to erase the personal data, the controller, taking account of available technology and the cost of implementation, shall take reasonable steps, including technical measures, to inform controllers which are processing the personal data that the data subject has requested the erasure by such controllers of any links to, or copy or replication of, those personal data.

Long story short

To this day, the right to be forgotten is not specifically regulated by law. The data protection laws, which are country-specific, only contain provisions on the conditions under which personal data must be deleted.

From a technical point of view, solutions have not yet been found to guarantee the eradication of outdated or wrong content. X-pire, for example, is a software that allows users to give their pictures an expiration date after which the photo becomes unrecognizable. Yet neither this nor any other program on the market offers complete protection, as copies of the pictures could be made and reposted before the originals are encrypted.

So, what now?

Ultimately, your most promising choice is to reach out to the person who uploaded the content and to apply for deletion on the relevant websites and search engines. This is time-consuming but guarantees the fastest success if your request is justified. Therefore, you firstly try to get in touch and make your case. If you are an organization that is already exposed in media, you need to proceed with caution as an aggressive behaviour from your side can easily backfire. This also hinges on a positive and good reputation that you have already in place. Secondly, if you have credible grounds to be believe that content is defamatory on a personal or corporate level, you can request removal based on reputational damage. Let’s look at these options. For example, the most popular search engine, Google, offers its own pages for deletion requests.

Apply to delete outdated content on Google

This request can only be submitted for pages or images that have already been modified or removed from the Web. Simply enter the URL that you copied from Google search results and request removal. If the request is successful, the cached result and snippet will be removed from Google search results.

Apply to delete other content on Google

On this page, you will find instructions on where to report content that you wish to be removed from Google's services in accordance with applicable law. This procedure, however, is much more time-consuming than the deletion of outdated content, as Google asks for background information on why they should delete this content. One also needs to bear in mind that transparency is fundamental for Google: Without having legal evidence, deletion requests are often turned down. There are many points to consider for your request to be successful. Is there public interest behind the information? Is the information time-critical? Are public figures involved?

With that being said, even if there are doubts as to whether your application is justified or not, it may be worth making the claim. There are many examples where Google has granted the request for cancellation, although there was no right to do so. Should Google reject the request, a written justification must be provided. If you don't agree with the justification, you may file a lawsuit against it.

File a lawsuit

The final option, if all claims are rejected, is to go to court. The extent to which this is promising depends on the individual case: Are personal rights violated? Was there a violation of honor? Does the negative content perhaps even concern unfair competition? Is it a public person? Is the offender known or is it a complaint against an unknown person? There are many reasons for and against (not) going to court. But what is already clear in advance: a court case is time-consuming, expensive, and may have to be repeated in different countries until all links, photos and posts disappear.

It may only take five minutes to ruin your reputation – but what happens after these ominous 5 minutes is at least partly in your own hands. Repairing reputational damage can be done, but it is no easy feat. Your best bet is to make sure everything is in place not to provoke negative mentions to start with. Learn more on how Reputation Affairs can support you on that journey.

Reputation Affairs™ strengthens and protects businesses, families and influential individuals when faced by the most complex communications issues. Reputation Affairs™ is a highly focused division of Brand Affairs™, a well-established specialist consultancy focused on brand strategy, public relations and social media.
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