Magazine article Management Today

Paradoxes of Perception

Magazine article Management Today

Paradoxes of Perception

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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