Of brands and reputations

We hear a lot about the importance of branding today. Even at the individual level, you are urged to work on your “personal brand”. It certainly applies to all sorts of commercial undertaking where the usefulness of branding is obvious. However, this fashion has moved into the world of housing associations and in that context worries me.

A brand is something that is worked on or manufactured. It is a public relations and advertising concept. Do housing associations really need brands? I would argue that what they really need are reputations. A reputation is something which is earned by virtue of what you do rather than being created to match some vision of what you would like the world to think about you.

Housing associations should all have a reputation for meeting housing needs and for treating their tenants fairly. Notice the word tenants – it is important. If housing associations are to meet the needs of the people in most need, then they should really be providing social rented housing as their core business and main objective. This tenure meets the needs of people on low incomes (or with variable incomes) better than so-called “affordable housing” whether it is intermediate rent, market rent or various low-cost home ownership models.

Housing associations need to be aware that the sector’s reputation is not as good as it ought to be. Partly, this is because there is negative stereotyping of housing association tenants. The sector must respond and correct this prejudice.

In addition, associations are also seen as holding considerable wealth and not putting that wealth to good purpose. Getting involved in a range of new products that don’t directly help people in need can be a symptom of this if the profits of such activities are not directed at helping the core business. If this is true of some associations, then they should change their habits. The rest of the sector should encourage them to do so. All associations should be clear about their investment priorities and be ready to face scrutiny.

Associations are also widely criticised for high salaries paid to senior staff. Board members need to be aware of public sensitivity on this issue and make responsible decisions on pay.

If housing associations can deal with these issues then they will go a long way towards improving their reputations – much more useful than worrying about their brands.

And what about the individual level? It would probably be better if everyone was happy to be judged on what they did rather than wasting energy creating their personal brands. That way some of us might eventually earn reputations.

Kim Penfold
May 2018