Who does your company do business with? As a marketer, are you aware of the customers that pose the biggest risk to eroding your hard-earned brand reputation? These are questions that many leading marketers I’ve spoken with don’t have the answers to – but we should.

When we think about defining our brand image, we tend to jump straight to thoughts of branding workshops and marketing tactics that would support our brand hierarchy. While these are obviously important steps towards establishing your brand in the eye of your customers, it is your clients themselves that often carry an unexpectedly high level of control of your brand perception.

Google, for example, is working with the Pentagon on a program that uses artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. Thousands of Google employees, including senior engineers, have signed a petition that demands the work be halted. With visibility in the NYT and dozens of other prominent publications, the simple act of taking the Pentagon on as a client has contributed disproportionally to the company’s brand image – essentially painting Google as a company that would do business with anybody as long as a big payout is involved.

When agents from Saudi Arabia were accused of murdering the writer Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the current administration, several companies were quick to respond. Richard Branson suspended his directorships of two Saudi tourism projects and is suspending talks of a $1 billion investment with the country. The New York Times pulled its sponsorship of the Kingdom’s Future Investment Initiative (FII). Others, including AMC Theaters, are facing a negative brand impact resulting from their continued activity in the Kingdom.

Patagonia, on the other hand, has drawn a line in the sand that explicitly states who the company will, and will not, do business with. The company, known for its exceptional brand image and customer loyalty, announced in April this year that it would only sell its iconic vests to companies that ‘prioritize the planet.’

These brand implications are significant and deserve a higher level of consideration and planning than they often receive. Our recent report, High Stakes Leadership in a Post B2B World, reveals that the impact extends far beyond B2C companies. We found that 93% of US business decision makers take into account values when making a B2B purchasing decision. Despite this, 45% of marketing leaders don’t have an up-to-date high-stakes comms plan in place.

We strongly suggest that all companies maintain an up-to-date high-stakes communications plan in place that includes a clear definition of who they will and will not do business with.

Additionally, it is critically important to have a system in place to maintain a constant level of awareness about your clients. With this in place, you can swiftly cut ties if a client is involved in an activity that clashes with your brand values. Our research supports the urgency of cutting such ties: Over half (52%) of business decision-makers will terminate a business relationship with an organization that doesn’t respond to a high-stakes communication event within two to three days.

In our hyper-connected world, we can no longer rely on marketing activity alone to define our companies’ brand images. Today’s brand leaders need to monitor how activity across their entire organization affect brand perception – with a particularly keen eye on who they do business with.

[Patagonia is] reluctant to co-brand with oil, drilling, dam construction, etc. companies that they view to be ecologically damaging. Every end user is up to Patagonia's approval and each order is approved or denied on a per-case basis.

Patagonia