Brand reputation and the unmeasured world of good taste

When a brand ascends to higher ground, it defines social norm, constitutes cultural capital and signals ‘taste’. But how is that 'good taste' defined, and how can a brand get there?

Updated: Dec 10, 2020 06:20:43 PM UTC
Image: Penley Estate

"Civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge we do not possess" -Fredrich Hayek

Brand reputation is an ‘opinion of opinions’. It is ultimately an informational derivation. A brand must confront itself with the reality of how others perceive it.

A connected digital world provides access and limitless opportunities to build and use reputation. To do this, a ‘cognitive approach’ is needed for processing reputational feedback. In academic circles this is called the ‘Epistemology of reputation’. It is a critical area for a brand’s evolution. It concerns the mapping and circulation of information. It foretells the construction of social norm. It deciphers what it is that elevates a brand to being a cultural icon.

A brand can be an undifferentiated trademark or a cultural icon. When it ascends to higher ground, it defines social norm, constitutes cultural capital and signals ‘taste’.

But, what is that thing we call good taste? How do we judge it?

Immanuel Kant said taste is an acquired disposition to discriminate and appraise. Acquiring taste as a discriminatory ability cannot be tutored through cognitive sciences. We need experts, tags, labels and rating systems in order to acquire a capacity for discrimination. We may know about good taste from those who know better.

When we first come into contact with any new information in unknown domains, our access to facts is limited to the opinions and preferences of others. Inevitably, we rely on word of (relevant) mouth. We look for somebody who knows more about the subject than we do. Of course, new communication technologies have made it very easy for any novice to venture into new domains of knowledge. There are armies of ‘Google gurus’ peddling second hand knowledge. Nevertheless, this is a fundamental and paradigmatic shift in our relationship with knowledge. The more the information, the more the mass of confusion. The more the vested interest, the greater the polarisation and bias injected into the information architecture.

Resultantly, there is a ‘heuristics overload’. Brands gain value because they represent a judgement on information that has been sifted, graded, evaluated and commented upon by millions of others. The reputation of a brand therefore is the summative outcome of collective intelligence about the brand and category. It holds a form of knowledge on which we have to rely even when it is processed by others. The way in which the authority of this knowledge is constructed and amplified by brand owners gives us the confidence to swallow it even though it represents a somewhat biased judgement of many others. That’s what luxury does best. Ensure swell reviews by the cognoscenti and popular opinion be damned.

The World Wide Web represents a disruptive and radical transformation in our access of knowledge. Because information retrieval systems using search algorithms are based on ranking of information, the web has forever changed the forms, domains and ways in which objects of knowledge are constructed, stored and retrieved.

Today, socially decentralised information can achieve intelligent results and therefore the very idea of collective intelligence has entered a new phase. This knowledge is not sitting in some red leather bound encyclopaedia. It is in every interaction from Google searches, Wikipedia entries, e-commerce transactions to the likes /dislikes on a social network. All of it represents a genuine collective intelligence system. Many leading thinkers Shoshana Zuboff, Tim Wu, James Suriwiecki have defended the liberty to produce, unearth, distribute content in unregulated ways. But there are weighty implications for how different designs for capturing collective wisdom may result in different outcomes.

The positives of such collectivist judgement include a diversity of opinions, the independence to input and obvious decentralisation. The worrisome negatives potentially include commercial engineering of information, injection of motivated bias and an uneven results architecture.

Let us move to an important area of establishing a reputation in matters of taste and aesthetic preference. Which test is reliable? What, if any, can be objective standards in matter of aesthetics? For the beginners, it is easier to take the path to trusting a known authority. Usually such choices in important matters gets inculcated at a younger age. However there are categories where we find adult novices—art, political ideology, real estate, wine and fine dining. As the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has shown such tastes are often shaped by one’s social context. Nevertheless, novices also learn to discriminate by accessing information, classification systems, values and procedures employed to authenticate their developing impressions. Disturbingly, expertise developed via open source is usually dwarfed expertise. Anthropologist Marie Douglas in her book ‘How Institutions Think’ has pointed out that classification systems tend to be subjected to an irresistible pressure towards simplification. So while the actual market conditions are becoming more complex and differentiation is growing, the outcomes in terms of information processing are becoming simpler, perhaps dumber.

This is also how human civilisation grew. A social or cultural tradition is firstly a labelling system distinguishing those who are insiders from those who are outsiders. What is most important is that we should ensure that the collective tools remain open and democratic and improve innovative and accessible ways of selecting knowledge.

Culture industries spawn guide books, magazine commentators and influencers. David Hume wrote a famous essay ‘Of the standard of Taste’ where he argued that we need a principle, a rule that allows us to discriminate between good and bad taste. Clearly, in his mind, a true judge is a connoisseur who is competent to make a reasoned judgement and also communicate this to others. To him taste is a delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison and rid of all prejudice.

This is, alas, not the way of the internet. Truly, in some cases, less is more and more is less.

The writer is Global Head, Marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, social trends, history, technology and politics. Views expressed are personal

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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