Dolce & Gabbana: When reputation damages brand

Do Dolce & Gabbana’s recent statements about gay adoption strengthen their reputation as fashion’s aging enfants terribles?
Are Madonna and Elton John right to be raising hell or just ignorant of the full statements (made in Italian)?
Will all this help sales, while further building Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabanna’s reputations?
We define the difference between reputation and brand and discuss cases to better illustrate the matter.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is credited with this statement:

Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.
Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 10.58.37

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is credited with this statement:

Build brands not around products, but around reputation.
Airbus-Virgin-America

What do you think? Do you agree with Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson?
Should we care about brands, or should we focus on reputation instead? Leave a comment below.

Define or stay confused

Before we can answer the above questions, we need to define what these terms mean. A while back I wrote Brand versus reputation: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, in which I pointed out that first, brand and reputation are two sides of the same coin and closely related, but nevertheless different concepts. I also disagree with people that say “reputation is part of the brand”. They are related, not the same.

Richard Ettenson and Jonathan Knowles (2008) pointed out the typical factors for a company’s top-notch reputation:

The company has integrity and is reliable, accountable, responsible and quality-conscious.

More formally, reputation is the collective representation of multiple constituencies’ perception of the corporation’s behaviour. Accordingly, reputation is about how efforts regarding brand and what the company has done or delivered are seen by its various stakeholders (e.g., investors, costumers, employees and consumer advocates).

Heads or tails, let us define the terms below.

Brand is a 'public-centric' concept
It is about relevance and differentiation (with respect to the customer, public opinion, supplier). Brand focuses on what a product, service or firm has promised to its clients.
Brand is what the corporation tells the public or its investors, the news it shares about itself or the product, and most importantly, what it wants and aspires to be.
A brand helps reduce uncertainty for a client. The customer knows what they get, such as a hotel chain’s rooms offering the same features (make-up mirror, good hair dryer) as standard around the globe.
So, what is reputation, then? Glad you asked.

Reputation is an attitudinal construct and 'word of mouth- / experience-centric' concept
Attitude denotes the subjective, emotional, and cognitive based mindset (see Schwaiger, 2004, p. 49), which implies splitting the construct of reputation into affective and cognitive components.
The cognitive component of the construct can be described as the rational outcomes of high reputation. Examples include high performance, global reach and one’s perception of the company (e.g., great employer).
The affective component of reputation is the emotions that respondents have towards a company. Thus, people talk about these things with friends (word of mouth). Media coverage can also influence how we feel toward a company.
Based on an extensive literature review, Schwaiger (2004) proposed an approach to measure reputation for corporations. He tested this in a preliminary qualitative study. Out if these findings he developed a survey to test his measures with a data set. Findings suggest four indices to explain reputation, namely:

1. quality (e.g., product or service),
2. performance (e.g., has vision, well managed, performs well),
3. responsibility (e.g., sustainability, being a good corporate citizen), and
4. attractiveness (e.g., offices, buildings, as an employer).

The above can be used to explain reputation as measured with performance and sympathy toward the company. Your reputation precedes you. It significantly influences your chances of doing business with somebody.

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Does company size matter?

Size definitely matters when it comes to brand. You might have a brand in your part of the woods, but Coca-Cola or Nespresso are still in a different league; they are global. What about your brand? If your company employs less than 250 tull-time employees (what the European Commission calls a small- and mid-size enterprise or SME), you are unlikely to have a global brand.

Your resources will surely not allow you to splash your logo all over the place, so spending money on brand is hard to justify. However, spending resources on keeping your clients happy, while maintaining a good reputation is a no-brainer (i.e. go for it). However, as Emil Heinrich points out, even a SME has a brand in the region where it does business. Hence, this might help recruitment up to about a 100 km radius.

Emil-Heinrich-a-storekeeper-does-have-local-brand
Small shopkeepers do have a local brand.

Are consumer brands becoming less important?

That remains to be seen. Nevertheless, here are two industries with interesting trends.

Food: Craft versus Kraft

In a recent Financial Times article (March 17, 2015 – Craft versus Kraft), Gary Silverman discusses food business trends, in particular how Kraft or Campbell’s Soup are losing market share to small food producers (retrieved March 18, 2015 from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/2a238422-c7e0-11e4-8210-00144feab7de.html).

There is a general disinterest in brands.

The millennial generation wants products that are low in salt, sugar or fat. As well, these must be free of artificial flavors and rich in protein or anti-oxidants. This is the result of older American consumers being more prone to obesity, heart disease and other maladies. In turn, the article insinuates that millennials do not want to follow the same path.

The article also points out:

“…how important it has become for food companies to tell consumers an interesting story, replete with details about their products’ ingredients and health benefits. Such narratives give brands the coveted — and elusive — quality of ‘authenticity’.”

YES - food brands are becoming less important.
In the US, the companies that are winning the game for natural, organic, protein-rich and unprocessed food are quite small.

Accordingly, one’s reputation for being quality-conscious and accountable is increasingly important (remember the neighborhood shopkeeper).

Clothing: #DolceGabbana or #BrandyMelville

The Dolce & Gabbana label came under fire in 2007 for an ad that many felt depicted the gang rape of a woman. The ad was ultimately pulled soon after, but unfortunately, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were accused of referring to people who were offended as ‘a bit backward’. Of course, belittling those who took offense is neither acceptable nor in good taste.

Dolce-Gabbana-Gang-bang-ok-IVF-same-sex-marriage-NOT
Dolce & Gabbana do it wrong – AGAIN!

The above image is from Kelly Cutrone’s tweet about the ad, which she tweeted on March 15, 2015. It got a lot of attention in the US, Canadian, UK and German media, partly because of an interview the two fashion icons given Panorama, an Italian magazine.

According to Dolce & Gabbana, and as stated in the printed interview, “la famiglia tradizionale, fatto di mama papa e figli, (a traditional family, comprised of a mother, father, and children). Of course, if one reads the interview more closely, it is clear that the guys are referencing their own upbringing and Sicilian traditions in general. There, this family model is paramount.

What got people like Elton John and Madonna upset was that the fashion designers dared to raise some scepticism about in vitro fertilization and surrogate mothers, mentioning their personal opinions about this. Whilst we may disagree, a democracy thrives on allowing people to state their opinions; castigating them thereafter on social media is an increasing – but worrisome – trend.

Of course we have to forgive Madonna. She is pushing her latest album Rebel Heart, which debuted earlier this month. Sales were lagging until Madonna posted this on Instagram.

Madonna-should-read-things-carefully-before-throwing-stones-at-others
Did Madonna “think before she wrote this Instagram post”? SURE – helping her latest album Rebel Heart to push up its lagging sales….

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are also the guys who drew applause for sending a pregnant model down the runway as part of their tribute to mothers.

Similarly, some people got rather miffed earlier this year about Brandy Melville, a clothing brand that offers only size small. It clearly discriminates against people of different size. Of course, it is unlikely you will fit in a small size dress if you are over forty. I do not 🙂 Again, some social media backlash happened. Questions about the viability of the brand continue (see DrKPI and #BrandyMelville). Can such a brand survive or will it simply die, as Abercrombie & Fitch seems to be?

BrandyMelville-one-size-does-not-fit-all
Size Small does not fit all of us, does it?
Dolce & Gabbana: Social media talk is cheap
Social media poses a substantial risk that opinions communicated by company officials (e.g., as spelled out in documents or stated during interviews) is taken out of context and spread widely.

Using Twitter and Facebook to share news is fine. But please Madonna and Elton John, check the facts before you share.

(Mr. Dolce: “I am gay. I cannot have a child… I am not convinced by what I call children of chemistry, or synthetic children. Uteruses for rent, sperm chosen from a catalogue.” – see Fashion’s ageing enfants terribles).

Finally, talk is cheap. As consumers, let our actions speak louder than words: Don’t buy!

By the way, negative press and social media coverage is better than none… see Benetton below. And here’s a sucker’s bet: I would bet you most of those people who feel outraged or miffed today will likely continue shopping Dolce & Gabbana and Brandy Melville stuff as early as next month! It is so bla bla, superficial…

Benetton-advertising-with-dead-Bosnian-soldier-wearing--bloodied-shirt-with-bullet-holes

More brands than Dolce & Gabbana or Brandy Melville have raised controversy: in 1994, Benetton took a fallen Bosnian soldier’s uniform, using its red blood and bullet holes for an ad campaign.

Interesting read: Henry A. Giroux (2014). Benetton’s “World without Borders”: Buying Social Change

Source: Dolce & Gabbana: When reputation damages brand

Bottom Line

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The above examples offer two insights as spelled out below.

Brand versus Reputation
1 —Corporate brand – reflects what the corporation aspires to be while the me brand reflects what I as an individual aspire to.
Reputation – the other side of the coin – is how people feel about the company or the person.
SMEs should focus on reputation, spending little on building a brand beyond their geographical territory.
Unfortunately, in practice brand and reputation are rarely if ever treated as separate BUT related constructs. This is a dangerous mistake to make.

2 — Corporate reputation is based almost exclusively on perceptions, not real knowledge. Hence, while managing corporate reputation is primarily a corporate communications task, that is not where it ends. Yes, doing good things and talking about them is great, but remember the goal.
To illustrate, companies sometimes appear to spend more money on advertising their good deed than providing money to the cause itself. Not really conducive to a good reputation…
Finally, if you don’t like a brand, its reputation or the owners’ behaviour, don’t just tweet about it, stop buying the product!

What is your opinion?
Do you trust your clothing label’s reputation?
Do you care about your brand’s reputation when you shop?

Urs E. Gattiker

Professor Urs E. Gattiker - DrKPI is corporate Europe's leading social media metrics expert (see his books). He continues to work with start-ups. Urs is CEO of CyTRAP Labs GmbH.

6 thoughts on “Dolce & Gabbana: When reputation damages brand

  • 23. March 2015 at 9:55
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    Dear Urs, thanks for sharing your insights with this article.

    Today it´s all about reputation. It´s not, what brands say they are, it´s about what people say, brands are.

    Marketing is going to be changed dramatically:

    In the past consumer´s brand purchase and loyalty was based on the relative value of brands – what brands promised via PR and Ads what they are.

    But today we live in a more or less 100% transparent world cause of all the consumer reviews, blog posts and other word of mouth out there – means we do not only know the relative value, but also know the absolute value of a brand.

    In the future (which starts today) our brand loyalty and buying decisions will base on the absolute value of brands. And this changes the marketing from the classical marketing mix to an influence mix. In the future, people will be no longer loyal to a brand, they only will be loyal to the talkers & recommenders of their social peer groups.

    Reply
    • 23. March 2015 at 15:38
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      Dear Mark
      Very interesting comment, thanks so much for sharing your insights. You write:
      And this changes the marketing from the classical marketing mix to an influence mix. In the future, people will be no longer loyal to a brand, they only will be loyal to the talkers & recommenders of their social peer groups.

      I am not sure if I see it as drastically as you do as an expert. I am sure you agree, we need to distinguish between consumer (e.g., wash detergent, clothing, food) versus capital goods (e.g., trains). If we focus on consumer products then your argument above is weakened by what you wrote as well in the comment namely:

      But today we live in a more or less 100% transparent world cause of all the consumer reviews, blog posts and other word of mouth out there – means we do not only know the relative value, but also know the absolute value of a brand.”

      So should I let myself be influenced by things such as what other people say even if it is not based on facts? For instance, just today I came across a blog post stating:
      Mit Facebook erreicht man mehr Leute in der Schweiz als alle TV Sender zusammen. Oha. (With Facebook you reach more people in Switzerland than you would with all TV stations combined)”

      Just because you can, does not mean you do.
      And as far as TV and Radio are concerned, it is not just you could but actually you do. For instance, Echo der Zeit (daily News show) you do reach more than 2 mio listeners each day in German speaking Switzerland. It is not like Facebook you could, you do if you are interviewed about your work and / or product.

      As well, just because some people talk about a product does not mean I will buy or listen to them …. or be influenced by them. For me influence is a very difficult construct to measure.

      What I do submit to and agree with you on is that product reviews ==> particularly fair and extensive tests by labs specialised in this type of work, are becoming ever more important. If my product suffers in things like:
      – bad ranking in a product test, or
      – child labor in my supply chain

      things can become hairy and the public backlash could be substantial. H&M suffered because of the fire and dire working conditions his sub-contractor had in Bangla Desh. Nevertheless, last year’s sales are not lower but higher than in 2013.

      I am just getting disenchanted with all this advocates and interest groups saying it matters. The facts are that public opinion matters less and less. Why, because people have such a short-term memory…. or continue buying ‘bad brands.’

      Mark, do you feel people do as they say or just follow the talk is cheap motto? Complain a bit in public but continue shopping products that harm our environment?

      Reply
  • 23. March 2015 at 23:07
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    Whenever a company or people insert themselves in politically correct or not so correct discussion or opinion, they will gain and lose at the same time, based on which group they are targeting.

    Brands as well as so called celebrities should sell their product or service and not their opinion.

    It is a brand, quality, appearance and price that interests me.
    If it is a celebrity, I’d prefer if they stay with whatever they are doing rather than thinking their opinion matters to me.
    Often these opinions are only thrown out there to build acceptance and win over adoring fans. Simply said, advertising of any kind is wasted on me. Building a brand based on lip service will ultimately fail unless a cult like following can be created: see Apple. “The Unicorn is real”.

    Reply
    • 24. March 2015 at 8:48
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      Hans, thanks for this comment, cool.

      That is probably the risk managers are less likely to take but entrepreneurs/founds are more likely to take it. MAKING REMARKS ON SUBJECTS that are fare afield of their core competencies.
      In this case, Dolce & Gabbana made comments about subjects in their interview to Panorama (Italian magazine) that had little if anything to do with their label. They might have better stayed away from the topic.

      Whenever this happens, risks are immanent and possible backlashes will happen. Especially, if people like Madonna are desperately trying to push their latest album. She needs all the help she can get.
      For instance, BBC 1 radio has gone public saying she is an artist for the old crowd. Since they are trying to reach the 20 to 30 year olds, Madonna’s latest album will get little if any air time..

      But as you point out, Madonna should not have gotten into the feud either.
      Her comment adds little if any substance to the discussion. In fact it makes her look rather dumb. Moreover, trying to get attention and making money on other people’s misfortune seems not acceptable or fair.

      Cult like following is not easy for DrKPI (my brand). But you can work hard at it, which I and my team do. Moreover, once clients have experienced the service, they may do a word of mouth thing or two for you.
      These recommendations (if you are an SME) are worth much more than an ounce of gold.

      Thanks so much for sharing your insights Hans.

      Dolce and Gabanna at the end of the show

      Reply
  • 24. March 2015 at 22:37
    Permalink

    Well, being a little “different” , I see armies of marketing specialists, sociologists and psychologists waging war on the “common man”, competing for the last Dollar in his pocket while the “common man” has few or no defenses against methods that he is unfamiliar with. And as time progresses, advertising becomes more and more outrageous and challenging.

    Actually, when I look at advertising, I see a reflection of the state of mind societies are in; after all, advertising has been created to interest and excite them, make them react. While at it, borders are constantly being pushed to new limits.

    As for celebrities, people don’t seem to actually check whether a person is even qualified to speak out.

    “Madonna” mentioning God is like a Vegan speaking out on the quality and flavor of a sausage.

    Sadly, followers and fans are hanging on their “God’s” lips and are becoming mouth pieces echoing the “great news” they have heard.

    As you can see and as I have said before, the advertising overkill is wasted on me and instead of creating a “need or want” in me, I see the reflection of a medieval Bazaar. But instead of being able to stay away from the Bazaar, advertising is now following you around and has infiltrated every home.

    As I have watched society in my nearly 69 years, I have witnessed the beginning deterioration of family life as well as the change of values with cable and satellite TV entering nearly every home.

    That was the time when the change from a society of needs to a society of abundance was nearly complete.

    Oh well, here the same sentence, spoken by an evil dictator some time ago, can be a applied:
    It is to the good fortune of every government, that the people are actually quite stupid“.

    All the best.
    Hans

    Reply
    • 25. March 2015 at 8:57
      Permalink

      Dear Hans

      Thanks for your reply. I love your statement.
      “Madonna” mentioning God is like a Vegan speaking out on the quality and flavor of a sausage.

      But also:
      …change of values with cable and satellite TV entering nearly every home.

      That was the time when the change from a society of needs to a society of abundance was nearly complete.

      From a society of needs to a society of abundance, self love and narcissism. We are pursuing gratification for our own perspectives. But we have to hold the mirror up to ourselves:

      1. We tweet and re-tweet without first reflecting and thinking about it – see Madonna or Elton John.
      2. We act a bit like sheep and just follow ….
      3. We repeat what others say without first thinking and reflecting.
      4. We want to show off how cool we are and focus on selfies… and other kind of snapshots of not always moments that put us in the best light.

      Shame on us, nobody has to follow these ‘celebrities’ dumb actions. Do they? Think first, act later.
      Self-love Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's own attributes.

      Reply

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