Perception is reality – give your brand a positive head start

January 23, 2014

There were two unfortunate incidents involving aircraft recently: A small plane did an emergency landing on an expressway in the Bronx and a business jet crashed at the Aspen airport. My husband is a private pilot; immediately after both announcements, texts began flowing into my phone from well meaning contacts double-checking that he was okay and wasn’t involved in either incident.

Although I force myself to see the positive side of this outreach, deep down part of me is frustrated. I don’t hear of a massive traffic accident and then immediately text my friends in town to make sure they weren’t involved. It’s been proven over and over that driving is much more risky than flying. Indeed, my husband is more likely to be injured or killed on the drive to work than once he is actually in the cockpit.

However, because of the general rarity of catastrophic airplane crashes, they tend to get mass media coverage. This leads people to perceive airplanes as more risky. Further, as a driver, you perceive a sense of control – even though you have little-to-no influence on the drivers around you. I’ve encountered many people with fear of flying, but I have yet to meet a person who has a fear of being in a car. As most of us know, perception is reality.

Unfortunately, this means that the “brand” of traveling by airplane will likely continue to suffer from this incorrect assumption of danger. There is no well-funded organizing body who can counteract these negative perceptions with reality – no “it’s safer to fly” campaigns will be launched in the near future. No major news reports will be filed on flights that land without incident.

But for the majority of brands, there are actions you can take to counter perceptions built on imperfect information. In the absence of you declaring what you stand for, the market will define your brand for you. But you don’t have to let them! Having clear, concise and credible messages that are consistently repeated will vastly turn the tides of perception in your favor.

Do you remember when low-carb/no-carb diets first kicked off? Potatoes were villainized. The Idaho Potato Council jumped right in with campaigns starring Denise Austin, a TV fitness expert, discussing the positive, healthy and nutritional characteristics of potatoes. Not only did they win awards but they were able to sway grocery stores to not cut down on potato shelf space due to the trend. And, they used a 3rd party source (the American Heart Association) to build credibility to their messages by obtaining an official seal of approval.

Chipotle is another case where they may not have done enough to counter brand perceptions. Once the public found out about McDonald’s owning a large stake in the firm, it tarnished their wholesome/whole-food brand. Even though McDonald’s has since sold their interest, Chipotle is still associated with them. It could be reasonably argued that they haven’t done enough to combat these perceptions.

We often see companies use clear, consistent communications as a way to counter negative perceptions. This is the heart of crisis management at its best. But why wait until there is a crisis? Getting the positive message about your brand out there early and often will set the stage for a favorable marketplace. And not just favorable, but forgiving – where consumers give you benefit of the doubt, built on positive associations to date. This will help cushion any brand against crisis of perception and aid in a quick recovery. This is what BP did with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While their brand will forever be tied with that tragedy, they have done a tremendous job at using brand and communications to proactively rebuild their brand.

Perception may always be regarded as reality – but you can have a powerful hand in shaping perceptions to your favor through careful brand message management.

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