In the world of food marketing, reputation is everything. Lately, ‘Horsegate’ (and, more recently, ‘Fishgate’) has thrown the spotlight on reputations in the industry for all the wrong reasons. As the horsemeat scandal played out, the reactions of the brands involved provided a real-life case study into crisis management. So why are so many of the biggest brands still failing to get it right?

As Warren Buffett said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Far from being out of their control, a brand’s reputation is a manageable asset, and the right approach can be the fine line between saving a reputation or destroying it.

In the case of ‘Horsegate’, the crux of the crisis for the brands implicated was the same it was their public reaction that differed - and the steps they took that set them apart.

“The media is more influential than ever in affecting public opinion”

Media Perception Insight (MPI) recently commissioned research into how the reactions of the brands involved have affected their reputation in the media. Our Pheme Index survey compared media perceptions of two brands implicated - Tesco and Findus - and Tesco clearly came out on top.

The results suggested Tesco’s proactive reputation management strategy - being seen to face the crisis head-on in the media - allowed it to preserve its positioning (unlike Findus, which tended to keep quiet as the scandal unfolded). The research provides an understanding that could prove invaluable for other food brands.

Throughout my career managing food businesses, I have been acutely aware of the importance of reputation - perceived or otherwise. Still, I struggled to find a way to effectively measure or evaluate perception - and I wasn’t alone. Fellow managers were investing heavily in market research, but were struggling to get the most out of it.

My frustration was a niggling doubt that this was not the best use of time or budget. We all know a good reputation among consumers is the holy grail of food marketing. However, while we’ve been busy researching what customers think, we have been overlooking a huge link in the reputation chain.

The media is more influential than ever in affecting public opinion - yet it is often left out of research and measurement practices. In our industry, trade journalists are the gatekeepers to an entire customer base. They are the recipients of hundreds and thousands of pounds’ worth of communications every year, so it is shocking that many leading food and grocery businesses are unaware of what they think.

Setting up MPI and developing the unique evaluation metric used by Pheme was born out of frustration with the way we use research to inform reputation management - and the need to fill a significant gap in the market and address past shortcomings.

Reputation management is worth investing in, but it’s important to spend wisely in the right areas. For this, we are going to have to assess our research practices - and make ongoing, effective evaluation a central part of our brand activity.

George Robinson
is chairman of Media Perception Insight