It is one of the latest business-speak jargon phrases. We are warned against doing such-and-such a thing because it may end up “tarnishing your brand”. Why do we need this phrase? After all, we used to have a perfectly good alternative: “damaging your reputation”. What, if anything, is difference between the two?
As I look back on my career, I can think of one major episode that had real and lasting consequences and left me wondering whether I should have handled it differently. Maybe other people can point to other episodes, but this one sticks in my mind. Way back in 1990 I was managing a project for a Canadian company with an Italian client. I had been negotiating a four-year extension to the project, and had more or less got everything in place. The price was acceptable, my bosses were pleased, and the client seemed to be happy. A meeting was arranged, and the Italian company arrived in Canada - a deputation of 6 senior managers with a mandate to execute the contract. Meanwhile, my company had been acquired by a US parent and as part of the process I was required to get approval to proceed with the negotiations I had initiated. Approval was smoothly granted.
On the morning of the meeting, my deputation of visitors arrived and were escorted into the boardroom. I was taken aside and asked to meet with my general manager and our finance director briefly before the meeting started. I was told that, following the acquisition, our accounting methods had summarily changed, and our rates were now going to be calculated differently. As a result, my multi-million dollar project was now going to come in at a 50% greater cost. This was to be sprung unannounced on my guests. I was horrified. In a scene that would not have looked out of place in “The Godfather”, the finance director just smiled “It’s only business. They’ll understand. They have accountants too”. I was instructed to present the proposal at the unexpected new price and with no leeway to negotiate. This is the moment when, looking back, I should have walked out. Who knows what the consequences of doing so would have been, but I didn’t walk out, and I know what the consequences of THAT were. But in 1991 I was a younger, less experienced, and less wise person.
The meeting went very, very badly, and to this day I believe my name is forever writ in mud in the minds of at least 6 Italian gentlemen. Voices were raised. Insults were hurled. Accusations were leveled, and large and heavy things were thrown. Was my reputation damaged, or my brand merely tarnished? When I sought a business introduction from one of them ten years and a new career later, he didn’t return my call.
You see, if something is tarnished all it takes is a spot of polish and everything is nice and sparkly again. Like your car. As any used car dealer will tell you, even the dirtiest pile of junk can be made to sparkle like a jewel with little more than the right cleaning products and a healthy application of elbow grease. However, if the car has been damaged, then it may be a much more expensive proposition to set about getting it repaired. If you are looking to buy a car, and it was not clean when you first saw it, it tends not to detract from your opinion of the vehicle if it is subsequently cleaned and polished. But if the car was damaged and then repaired, it will always be in the back of your mind that it was originally a damaged vehicle.
It is the same with reputations. Once a reputation is damaged, it can be a very difficult thing to recover from. On the other hand, the analogy goes, a “tarnished brand” can be restored to its former glory with the correct application of polish.
What has this to do with business? Well, it seems to me that safeguarding your reputation is something that, like a lot of traditional business practices, is becoming rather old hat. Rather than being warned against doing something that is likely to damage our reputations, it seems to me that instead we are being convinced that the downside of unethical conduct is only a “tarnishing of our brands”, which, by extension, an appropriate dose of polish will remedy. In other words, by using a more palatable choice of jargon, we encourage ourselves to engage more readily in shabby practices. The consequences, we convince ourselves, are actually going to be manageable.
In many ways, this type of behavior has its roots in the values instilled in us by our parents. When I was growing up, parents everywhere were expected to teach discipline to their offspring. If I got in trouble at school, I knew I would get into even deeper trouble with my parents when I got home. Actions came with consequences, a concept that I fully understood, even if I did nonetheless push the boundaries. But when the time came to have children of my own, the application of strict discipline was frowned upon. Instead parents were told to reason with our kids, and provided they said sorry all could be forgiven. If kids got in trouble at school, parents of my generation were expected to register their disappointment and extract from them the appropriate expression of contrition. I am happy with how my kids grew up, but I am not in general happy with how their generation has turned out. Having learned that all is forgiven once you say “Sorry”, they have grown up to be business leaders who are more concerned by “tarnishing their brands” than by damaging their reputations. They expect to be able to say “Sorry” and instantly recover any loss of reputation. They have grown up learning that consequences, whatever they may be, are nothing to be unduly concerned about.
And still the clock turns. When today’s generation of kids get in trouble at school, their irate parents march in and blame the teacher! Consequently, the attitudes of kids towards their teachers verges on the appalling. It makes me wonder what kind of leaders they will grow up to be. Maybe they’ll all be politicians, for whom nothing is their fault! Or maybe lawyers - professional apportioners of blame. Seriously, it does not bode well for the future.