The concept of multiple reputations recognizes corporate reputation as a construct to be understood in light of a “reputation for what” and “according to whom.” Broadly defined, corporate reputation is an assessment of quality or value that is granted by external audiences. Given the widely heterogeneous nature of external audiences, scholars have come to recognize that different audiences may have different assessments of quality across various dimensions.
There are two types of variance to consider. First, a firm can have multiple reputations based on different firm attributes, assessments of quality, or reputational issues (e.g., different reputations for what). For example, some audiences may be concerned with a firm’s reputation for financial performance, capability, or technical efficacy, while others may be more concerned with a firm’s reputation for social performance, conformity to social norms, or display of character or integrity. Second, each stakeholder audience may assess similar reputations differently (e.g., different reputations according to whom). For example, an investor concerned with social activism may assess a firm’s reputation for delivering financial value differently than an investor purely concerned with financial returns. Thus, a firm can have multiple reputations, in that reputation can be defined as an assessment of quality with variance along the assessment basis (reputation for what) and the audience making the reputation assessment (according to whom).
This entry covers the history of the concept of multiple reputations, examples of what multiple reputations means, issues tied to the aggregation of reputation data, and unanswered questions about multiple reputations.
Some of the first treatises on corporate reputation viewed it as an aggregate or overall assessment of quality. For example, Charles Fombrun, one of the pioneers in the field, originally defined reputation as a collective representation that describes a firm’s ability to deliver value to multiple stakeholders. However, scholars quickly recognized the issues associated with an aggregate perception of reputation. As art critics and book reviewers have long recognized, what may be perceived as high quality to one evaluator may be seen as low quality to another. Indeed, Fombrun himself eventually came to recognize the limitations of a collective construct and recognized the potential for variance across defined sets of stakeholders and firm attributes.
Several reviews of the corporate reputation literature, including an influential review by Donald Lange, Peggy Lee, and Ye Dai, detail how the concept of multiple reputations “for what” and “according to whom” has been explored from a number of perspectives. For example, many authors have focused on the dynamics between different reputations for broad attributes, such as the relationship between a firm’s reputation for financial performance and its reputation for social performance. Others have attempted to understand multiple reputations based primarily on the stakeholder group making the reputation assessment, focusing on the differences between idiosyncratic reputation judgments made by specific stakeholders, such as employees or investors. Still others have focused on the more general reputation judgments made by the media or the public at large. These studies primarily draw on impression management theory, signaling theory, stakeholder theory, institutional theory, and sociocognitive theories related to evaluator perceptions and expectations.
Examples of Multiple Reputations
The numerous lists and rankings that tally the “world’s best” companies perhaps best demonstrate the concept of multiple reputations. For example, according to the Reputation Institute, there exist well over 50 general rankings for the world’s “best” companies and/or brands and numerous rankings for specific attributes, including the world’s best employers, the world’s best corporate citizens, the world’s most sustainable companies, the best companies for minorities, the best companies for corporate governance, and so on. Interestingly, even among similar “world’s best” rankings, each individual firm’s position is often drastically different across rankings, further reflecting heterogeneity in audience judgments. For example, Exxon Mobil was ranked as the 25th most admired company according to Fortune Magazine in 2013, while the company did not appear in Bloomberg Businessweek’s ranking of the top 50 companies for the same year.
Suzanne Carter and David Deephouse were perhaps the first to academically examine the phenomenon of multiple reputations. In a case study, they found evidence that Wal-Mart had at least two highly salient reputations. First, Wal-Mart had a reputation for being “tough” with suppliers, which included perceptions of Wal-Mart using its considerable buying power to bully suppliers to lower prices and offer better terms. Second, Wal-Mart simultaneously had a reputation for being “good” with investors and customers, who appreciated its consistent financial returns, low prices, and customer-friendly policies. Carter and Deephouse also found that Wal-Mart used a number of defensive impression management tactics to ensure that its reputation for toughness with suppliers did not influence its good reputation with investors and customers. In the end, their study showed that a firm can have multiple unique reputations for different attributes according to different audiences and that maintaining these multiple reputations requires active management.
It is important to note that the dynamics of multiple reputations are still not well understood. Indeed, beyond an understanding that multiple reputations can exist and that their relationship is complicated, there still exist any number of questions concerning where multiple reputations come from, how they interact, and how they influence firm performance and other outcomes.
The concept of multiple reputations presents an aggregation and levels-of-analysis issue for scholars. Theoretically, a firm can have any number of reputations across a multitude of evaluators and points of assessment. Thus, an important question for researchers and practitioners is how to aggregate reputation into a few broadly general categories, or even as one overall reputation. That is, the nature of the relationship between a more generalized or aggregate reputation and more specific multiple reputations remains unclear.
Some scholars and practitioners argue that multiple reputations can be usefully aggregated into higher-order assessments. In defense of this position, many point to the popular Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” ranking. Fortune’s ranking is based on nine unique attributes, ranging from innovativeness to social responsibility, which are averaged into one overall reputation score. This score is then used to represent a firm’s general reputation, and multiple academic studies have shown that a ranking in the Fortune’s most-admired list can influence a range of firm outcomes, including firm performance.
In contrast, others insist that multiple reputations must be understood and defined either according to the attribute under consideration or according to the stakeholder making the assessment (or both). For example, in reviewing the literature on reputation, Kent Walker concluded that, at the very least, corporate reputation must be understood on a per-issue basis, in which the range of individual stakeholder perceptions could be aggregated issue by issue to represent a firm’s multiple reputations. Alternatively, Charles Fombrun has argued that reputation should be defined in terms of a specific stakeholder group, thus emphasizing variance across stakeholders but not necessarily across issues or assessments within stakeholder groups.
The aggregation issue is still in debate in the reputation literature, and very little research has attempted to compare and contrast different methods for aggregation. From a methodological standpoint, the issue is important because some level of aggregation is needed to meaningfully study corporate reputation; it would be impractical to measure all the potential reputations across issues and stakeholders. From a theoretical standpoint, understanding how to appropriately aggregate reputation is important in order to understand how stakeholders meaningfully evaluate firms. Considering too many reputations may lead to confusing and complicated scenarios, but considering too few reputations may ignore meaningful differences and nuances that are important to stakeholders. In this sense, different levels of aggregation may lead to drastically different studies and conclusions.
Additional Unanswered Questions
In addition to the aggregation issues detailed above, a number of questions remain concerning the nature of a firm’s multiple reputations. For example, many questions remain concerning how multiple reputations are built and managed over time. As Carter and Deephouse showed, while a reputation for toughness may be beneficial when dealing with suppliers, such a reputation may be a liability for consumers or investors. Impression management techniques can help keep these reputations separate, but an increasingly interconnected world may limit the ability of firms to manage and separate multiple reputations and audiences. Thus, some questions that remain include the following: Where do multiple reputations come from? How do multiple reputations interact as they are developed? Can multiple reputations conflict? How has the rise in global communication and interconnectedness changed the nature of managing multiple reputations?
There is also evidence to suggest that multiple reputations might compete with one another in the aftermath of a crisis or corporate wrongdoing. For example, in 2009, Exxon Mobil was ranked in both Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s “Best Corporate Citizens” list and Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” list. During that year, a federal jury found Exxon Mobil liable for contaminating groundwater in New York City, and a judge ordered the company to pay more than $100 million in damages. Exxon deployed an aggressive defensive response strategy and denied the allegations throughout the case. In the following year, Exxon Mobil maintained its ranking in the Fortune list but was dropped from the Corporate Responsibility list, largely as a result of its defensive posturing in the groundwater case.
Finally, there remain a number of questions regarding how a firm’s multiple reputations might influence or interact with alternative social evaluations, such as organizational legitimacy (e.g., perceptions of a firm’s appropriateness within a given set of social norms), status (e.g., the social ranking or prestige given to a firm), or stakeholders’ more generalized positive impressions, emotions, or attitudes concerning a firm. For example, what is the influence of multiple good (or bad) reputations on organizational legitimacy judgments? Can an organization be considered legitimate if it has one or more negative reputations? Similarly, how do multiple positive or negative reputations influence status rankings and hierarchies? And does having more than one positive reputation increase the status of a firm? Finally, can a firm generate positive impressions and emotions with stakeholders without developing a specific reputation? That is, can stakeholders generally “like” a firm without it being known for something specific, like innovation, financial performance, or social responsibility?
In conclusion, multiple reputations is a concept that recognizes the potential variance in reputation assessments of firm quality or value. There are at least two kinds of variance: one related to the basis of the reputation assessment and the other related to the stakeholder or audience making the assessment. A number of unanswered questions exist when considering a firm’s multiple reputations, including questions dealing with aggregation and with how multiple reputations form, interact, and are repaired over time.
Carter, S. M., & Deephouse, D. L. (1999). “Tough talk” and “soothing speech”: Managing reputations for being tough and for being good. Corporate Reputation Review, 2, 308–332.
Fombrun, C. J. (2012). The building blocks of corporate reputation: Definitions, antecedents, consequences. In M. L. Barnett & T. G. Pollock (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of corporate reputation (pp. 94–113). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lange, D., Lee, P. M., & Dai, Y. (2011). Organizational reputation: A review. Journal of Management, 37, 153–184.
Love, E., & Kraatz, M. (2009). Character, conformity, or the bottom line? How and why downsizing affected corporate reputation. Academy of Management Journal, 52, 314–335.
Mishina, Y., Block, E. S., & Mannor, M. J. (2012). The path dependence of organizational reputation: How social judgment influences assessments of capability and character. Strategic Management Journal, 33, 459–477.
Rindova, V. P., & Martins, L. L. (2012). Show me the money: A multidimensional perspective on reputation as an intangible asset. In M. L. Barnett & T. G. Pollock (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of corporate reputation (pp. 16–33). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walker, K. (2010). A systematic review of the corporate reputation literature: Definition, measurement, and theory. Corporate Reputation Review, 12, 357–387.