Trust. Admiration. Respect. Good feelings. The science behind the formulation of consumer perceptions about brands says these are the building blocks of corporate reputation.

So when was the last time you heard people use words like those to describe how they feel about their bank? For that matter, when was the last time they used them to describe the way they feel about somebody else's bank?

It turns out not to have been as long ago as one might think. In 2011, 24 of the 30 large banks in an American Banker/Reputation Institute survey garnered higher reputational ratings from consumers compared with the previous year. Even more impressive, two institutions in 2011, Harris Bank and Zions Bank, scored above 70 on our 100-point scale, crossing into territory that Reputation Institute, a reputation management consultancy, considers the difference between strong corporate reputations and merely average ones.

But this year, both of those banks are back below the 70-point mark, along with everyone else in the survey. The number of banks scoring below 60, a hallmark of a weak or vulnerable reputation, rose from six to eight. And that was before JPMorgan Chase set off the latest wave of public anxiety over banking with its headline-grabbing disclosures of recent trading losses.

Our online survey was conducted in January and February-too early to capture the impact of the JPMorgan Chase news, but certainly timely enough to measure the buildup of frustration Americans have been feeling toward banks.

If any of the initial anger over the financial crisis has dissipated with time, it easily has been replaced with more recent indignation over increased fees (both real or proposed) and over the interminably long wait for a recovery in the broader economy, with the heightened rhetoric of election-year politics only serving to fan the flames.

Consumers appear to have less patience now for distinguishing between big bank brands, except when it comes to differentiating between large banks and the very largest banks (since the inception of our ranking three years ago, the giants have consistently populated the bottom tier). Reputation scores for most regional banks, meanwhile, landed within a tight range of one another. With so few points separating the best from the rest, it looks as though reputation isn't the differentiator that some banks might have hoped.

There's an advantage, though, to a scenario in which you're tarred with the same brush as everyone else: it forces you out of a relative value mindset, which Reputation Institute's Anthony Johndrow says is exactly what companies need to do if they want to build a sustainable approach to managing their reputation.

"Banks are very competitive, so they tend to think of reputation as another chance to beat their rivals. But it's not a race, or if it is, then it's a very long one, especially given where banks are right now," says Johndrow, a managing partner at the firm.

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At its core, corporate reputation is the accumulation of feelings that come out of the direct experiences people have with a company, along with the messages the company puts out about itself and the messages others put out about the company.

Direct interaction-the experiences people have as a customer, investor or employee of a company-makes a big difference to reputation scores. Every bank in our survey was rated by at least 100 people who reported having some level of familiarity with the brand. But in cases where respondents reported having had a direct experience with a company, their ratings yielded reputation scores that on average were 10 points higher than the scores from respondents who had no direct experiences with the company.

Interestingly, the big, multinational banks in the survey, which tend to have weaker and more volatile scores, got an even higher lift than their regional counterparts when rated by people who reported having had direct experience with them.

Respondents also tend to rate a bank more favorably (7.3 points higher on average) if they have been exposed to the company's own messaging, through its advertising, marketing, public relations activities or social responsibility efforts.

But outside of their own financial institution, most people (75 percent) know about bank brands based mainly on what they hear about them from others, either in traditional media or social media venues, through family and friends, or in the advice they seek from experts. That kind of experience translates into a relatively tiny score lift of less than 2.5 points.

The math suggests that banks, like other companies, are best off focusing on their existing customer relationships. But Johndrow argues that in thinking about their relationships, too many banks are emphasizing the customer experience over customer expectations.

Customers these days expect companies-in banking or any other industry-to engage in citizenship, good governance and innovation, along with having solid financial performance and trustworthy products and services. Customer experience, Johndrow says, is a narrower concept that "does not address corporate behavior, which a broader reputation lens includes."

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Historically, the monoline credit card issuers ranked even lower than traditional banks in the minds of consumers when it came to matters of corporate reputation.

Recognizing its own reputational challenges, dating back several years before the financial crisis took hold, Capital One Financial established a department of corporate reputation and governance almost a decade ago. Led by the company's general counsel (who reports directly to CEO Richard Fairbank), the department includes the legal, corporate affairs, regulatory affairs, audit and government affairs functions of the firm.

"We built a discipline for including reputation risk assessments into business decision-making across the enterprise," says Richard Woods, Capital One's senior vice president of corporate affairs.

That's something few people outside the company would ever realize. But Capital One was one of just a handful of banks to improve its reputational score this year, and its increase of 5.8 points was the largest rise of any in the survey.

The increase perhaps was the result, at least in part, of the headlines surrounding its recent acquisition of the top-rated bank in this year's study, ING Direct. (Press about the company's purchase of HSBC Holdings' U.S. credit-card portfolio also may have helped; big acquisitions often are seen as a signal of financial strength.) Still, Capital One managed no better than 25th place in the ranking, a position that in many ways reflects both its size and its heritage as a card company. But with its move into branch banking in key markets including New York and Washington, Capital One has become a hybrid company, even more so with its recent takeover of the online deposit-gathering machine ING Direct.

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The reputation scores in the study are derived from survey responses that speak to what Reputation Institute identifies as the seven dimensions of corporate reputation. These are the perceptions consumers have about a company's citizenship, financial performance, governance, innovation, leadership, products and services, and workplace environment.

Breaking down the rankings by category, ING ran the table this year, placing in the top five for each of the key reputation drivers except for one-workplace environment-which is not altogether surprising for a brand that mainly conducts its business online.

The only other bank with as consistent a showing across categories was Comerica, a top five scorer in every category besides innovation. That was a category dominated by online players Charles Schwab, Ally Bank and E-Trade, along with ING Direct. The lone traditional bank to place in the top five for innovation was BBVA Compass.

ING, Ally and Charles Schwab also figured into the top five for products, along with Comerica and the bank with the second-highest rating overall in this year's survey, Bank of the West.

Jason Breed, who leads Accenture's social media practice globally, says online-only banks are becoming known for more than just their technological capabilities. "You're starting to see the online banks being more aggressive in customer-centricity modeling," he says.

He says more banks (and not just the online-only ones) are starting to see the potential of social media and other technology as more than an opportunity to wink at customers over Twitter or Facebook. Banks are now using these tools to enable interactions that can reshape entire customer relationships.

Harnessing the power of social media is no easy task for businesses, and it's still a relatively small percentage of people who interact with corporate brands in social media spheres. However, Reputation Institute, in a separate study this year of corporate reputations globally, found that social media was more powerful than both mainstream and online-only news media in creating a positive influence on reputation.

Perhaps one reason why is that social media isn't just a platform for sharing information; it also can be a venue for that direct experience that proves so valuable to companies in generating positive brand associations for consumers. (For an illustration of this, just try complaining over Twitter about a service issue with a bank-or a large one anyway-and watch what happens.)

But no matter how attentive banks may be to complaints and inquiries on social media, they still have a long way to go to put their reputations back on solid footing with consumers.

"Now that we are all sensitized to, and paying closer attention to, bank behavior, the punishments will come more swiftly in the future," Johndrow says, implying banks should be prepared for a bumpy reputational ride.

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