“Corporate reputation” is a term that on the face of it hardly needs explanation. Historians have long used it in an unproblematic fashion to refer to the way a firm is perceived by others. Yet as with many such terms, corporate reputation can be theorized or at least formally defined. Scholars in the fields of marketing and organization increasingly are doing both; since the 1980s they have attempted to distinguish reputation from the related constructs of image, identity, status, legitimacy, celebrity, and brand equity. The project is ongoing, and a strong consensus has not yet been reached on how to define corporate reputation. Charles Fombrun, whose definitions have been perhaps the most widely used, suggests the following: “a collective assessment of a company's attractiveness to a specific group of stakeholders relative to a reference group of companies with which the company competes for resources.” Fombrun's definition contains three core ideas: firms have multiple reputations, depending on which stakeholders are being considered; corporate reputation is a comparative construct, because a firm is always judged in relation to something else—in this case, the firm's competitors; and firms' reputations are a source of competitive advantage or disadvantage.
Historians, who for valid intellectual reasons rarely attempt the formal definition of terms, have not participated in the theorizing of corporate reputation. Yet the peculiar skills of historians are much needed; for if the study of corporate reputation has underemphasized the role of institutional phenomena such as rules, norms, processes, and structures, it has all but ignored historical context and historical processes.