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Reputation: Does it matter anymore? (spoiler: yes)

It’s Friday night and you’ve had a pig of a day: bag got stuck in the tube door on the commute and you had to overshoot your stop until the doors opened on the right side of the carriage; your Tupperware of quinoa with salmon and mirin dressing leaked all over the document you needed for the big meeting; after the meeting you saw you’d had herbs in your teeth the whole time. Some days you just want to hit the supermarket, buy a bottle of wine and some crisps and not have a real dinner.

Justifying the way you consume products and services isn’t something many people have to do out loud, but a lot more often to ourselves. Feeling guilty about buying a ready meal instead of cooking from scratch, not being entirely sure of the provenance of the chicken but eating it anyway, popping that facial wash with the microbeads in it in your basket and then nudging the bag of lettuce over the tube when you spy your friend at the other end of the aisle in case she finds out you’re not the noble friend-of-the-earth you purport to be.

Sure, it’s a first world problem to panic about how good a life the chicken you’ve just wrapped in parma ham had, but nevertheless, people feel guilt for everything, every day – saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, eating the wrong thing, travelling in the wrong way, supporting the wrong football team… it is our right as consumers to be aware of the bad and to choose to do it anyway. But who wants to be the brand everyone is embarrassed about?

People have choice, and they exercise that right several times every day through their purchases, behaviour and speech. One could suggest that the fact that supermarket own-branded products continue to grow their market share despite not being the most famous consumer brand on the shelf could mean consumers aren’t that fussy anymore…

When lovely Waitrose came up with the whizz bang idea of saying smoked salmon is essential I was delighted (thanks Waitrose – one bit of guilt eliminated from my overburdened mind), and I am not ashamed to buy their value range. But then, it’s Waitrose – I know they’re a good and ethical company. Anyway, were I to be arguing that people DON’T care about a brand’s reputation or purpose, I would make the point about the huge increase in sales across all the value ranges in all the big supermarkets. People want a bargain! They want cheap stuff that doesn’t make them blind! They want something that works and that’s it!

However, it’s just not true. If it were, would companies spend millions and billions developing their reputation, protecting their brand from criticism or copycats? Spend just as much salvaging reputations in the aftermath of a crisis if no one cared anyway? Wouldn’t that money be better off spent making it cheaper so people would just buy it unthinkingly as they careen around Budgens in a panic they won’t be back in time for Corrie? Reputation is Big Business, and that is because consumers do care, and they prove this everyday by avoiding brands and products that have been mired in muck (Nestle and the baby milk anyone?).

When Byron tricked all its illegally employed (by them!) staff into a Home Office honey trap, within minutes a campaign to BoycottByron was live and being shared. The campaign to stop advertising with the Daily Mail because of its editorial stance saw major players pull money from the platform. Of course it didn’t necessarily deter the readers of the paper, but the noise was there, the association of the Mail with hate was (even more) cemented in my mind, and my personal boycott of the Sidebar of Shame remains in place.

If all products were equal and we had no choice, the only thing we would have to go on when making purchasing decisions is brand and reputation. But we DO have choice, and we still don’t always choose the cheapest version of something, or the most effective version (if we did, then no one would shop at All Saints due to the knitwear falling apart if you look at it for too long). Brand, styling, and yes, reputation are all part of the complex world that make up our decision making, and thank goodness, or we’d all be out of a job.

This article is part of our Summer 2017 newsletter.