How Digital is Changing Everything

Before the proliferation of the Internet and social media, a company had an exclusive grasp on their reputation’s reins. If research revealed a disconnect between intended messaging and customer takeaway, a few outward-facing tweaks could correct customer perceptions.

What companies sold, then, buyers bought – conceptually and literally. “Mom-approved” peanut butter? Barring a public relations crisis hinting at a crack in said promise, consumers rarely second-guessed the integrity of the product that they spread on their kids’ sandwiches almost daily.

For many of us, this description of traditional reputation management feels simultaneously familiar and foreign. Familiar because company-dictated reputations were status quo until as recently as a decade ago. Foreign because the last decade’s seismic technological and social shifts have toppled this long-held model. Audience second-guessing is now second nature, giving the lion’s share of reputation control to everyone except for companies themselves.

We sum this up as the shift from the institution (then) to the individual (now). It’s a colossal change of course that has turned traditional reputation monitoring on its head, forcing companies to overhaul their mindsets and best practices in efforts to keep just a few fingers on those reputational reins.

Before we get to the implications of this shift, let’s illustrate the about-face that we’re discussing:

Pepsi. You know the brand. There was a time when consumers trusted anything that the soft drink asserted, from its mood-boosting potential to its ability to quench thirst.

Then the wellness movement began. Nutritional data revealed sugary soft drinks as detrimental to human health.

At the same time, consumers were growing savvy to traditional messaging tactics. Aided by technology that connects users to information once reserved for “insiders” (and that connects users to one another), the general public stopped accepting brands’ messages at face value, and began questioning assertions that they’d long accepted as truth.

Soda makers were charged in the court of public opinion with manufacturing a harmful product and cloaking its dangers. Facing declining sales, they faced an urgent undertaking: To continue moving product, they’d need to reawaken consumer trust in new and innovative ways.

It’s a challenge that birthed one of the most cringe-worthy and damaging brand missteps in years, and one that demonstrates the delicacy of reputation in a digital age:

In early 2017, Pepsi unveiled “Live for Now,” a short film commercial spot starring Kendall Jenner. Its premise: the de facto Kardashian defuses potential tension between happily dancing protestors and law enforcement by offering a police officer…a can of Pepsi.

The public’s response was staggering. Detractors slammed the use of a white actress against the backdrop seemingly designed to mimic the Black Lives Matter movement, with minorities reduced to extras. Denounced for its absurdity and insensitivity to nationwide police brutality concerns, the spot prompted outcries so far, so wide and so viral that they led to a most memorable Wired headline:
Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Ad Was So Awful It Did the Impossible: It United the Internet. Pepsi pulled the commercial after one day.

The Jenner incident underscored a newly-minted reality: Today, consumers trust fellow consumers’ responses to a brand more than they trust the brand itself.

Whether this shift could’ve happened independent of the Internet is up for debate, but another point goes without question: The democratization and connectivity offered by digital has made consumers willing (if not downright eager) to challenge Goliath-sized companies, even if just from behind their keyboards. It’s an adversarial impulse that would have been frowned upon a few decades back, but that’s now a standard measure of a company’s sincerity, worthiness and willingness to respond.

And when companies do respond, they face heightened expectations compared to years back. Historically, consumer outcries could be quelled by press conferences, media statements or other controls deployed by corporations. Today, these dusty tactics have lost their ability to silence detractors whose flames of dissatisfaction are fanned with ease. Sincerity and proof can extinguish them, but when too little or too late, even these tactics wield limited power.

Add false information (intended or otherwise) to this cocktail and you have a textbook example of technology’s ability to cut both ways. In 2008, online rumors that Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack spread like wildfire, demonstrating the Internet’s power for harm when Apple’s valuation saw a $9 billion loss. For every instance of digital shedding light on truth, there’s a scenario like this one, where what’s true is trumped by what’s shared widely – which, for corporations, can have dire results.

In this day and age, the key to maintaining control of your reputation is understanding and accepting the digital landscape, then planning and responding accordingly. Is it easier said than done given today’s strong opinions, unprecedented connectivity and rapid change? Yes. Still, reputation control is entirely possible for companies who recognize its importance, and who commit to keeping theirs afloat.

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