Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How much is a reputation worth?

Business Week has a very interesting article on corporate reputation. The authors describe efforts by companies and consulting firms to determine the impact that a positive reputation can have on a firm's stock price, and then to develop programs aimed at juicing a firm's shares. What is especially interesting to me about this article is the reaction by investors. The article points out that, "Many investment pros scoff at suggestions they can be influenced by image manipulation." When it is suggested that reputation-building efforts can have a direct impact on a firm's stock price, one investment analyst responds, "The markets are smarter than that." In general, I believe that U.S. capital markets are reasonably efficient. However, I would not be as quick to dismiss the notion that reputation-enhancing initiatives can have a near-term impact on investor perceptions and share prices. Scholars in the field of behavioral finance have shown that investors can be affected by biases, thus demonstrating that markets aren't perfectly efficient.

Having said that, I think that sustainable long-term changes in stock price require substantive improvements on the part of a firm, not just image-oriented campaigns. Companies, in fact, can find themselves in deeper trouble if they try to build a reputation through advertisements and public relations, while consumers, journalists, and investors later learn that the reputation is not consistent with the underlying realities of the business. Take BP, for instance. It spent a great deal of money on its "green" campaign under former CEO John Browne. When it then encountered several accidents and mishaps at its facilities, the company faced a serious disconnect between what it was saying in its image campaigns and what it was revealed to be doing in its own operations. BP's market value fell by nearly $40 billion from mid-2006 until the announcement of the resignation of Lord Browne in early 2007.