What comes to mind when you think of the word “sexy?” Hard work and generosity are probably not on your radar, but in the reputation economy, they should be. Says who? An unlikely source: movie star Ashton Kutcher.
In a new viral video from the Teen Choice Awards, Kutcher laid down some serious advice for teens that has struck a chord with viewers of all ages. Amid cheers and demands to “take it off!,” Kutcher offered new definitions for opportunity and sexiness, insisting that success comes not from entitlement, vanity, or luck, but from earning opportunities and giving of yourself. Though the advice was meant for young students starting their lives, these definitions should resonate with business owners as well.

“I believe that opportunity looks a lot like hard work,” said Kutcher, who detailed the start of his career carrying roof shingles, washing dishes, sweeping Cheerios dust, and working in a grocery store deli. “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so opportunities look a lot like work.”

Like Kutcher who never took his terrible jobs for granted, don’t forget that every single customer holds your growth and reputation in their hands. There are few shortcuts to earning the opportunities that come with a reputation built on good, hard work. While it’s possible to encourage a positive reputation with proactive management, trust is something that can only be earned, not given. Be humble, careful, and thankful, knowing that no matter how good you are, you’re never too good to work hard for any customer.

Sexiness takes on a whole new meaning in Kutcher’s speech as well. The movie star’s “sexy” has a less to do with shaggy haircuts and boyish good looks, and a lot more to do with strength of character. “The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart,” he said. “And being thoughtful, and being generous. Everything else is crap, I promise you.”

You don’t have to take the advice of a former That 70’s Show cast member to understand that your brand’s reputation, or, “sexiness,” now greatly hinges on your willingness to give and do the right thing. In a captivating TED talk, collaborative consumption expert Rachel Botman explains that the currency of the new economy is trust. And a New York Times profile of one very generous (and rapidly successful) Wharton professor suggests that altruism, not cutthroat ambition, is the key to getting ahead.

Paying it forward, it seems, puts people and businesses on the fast track to success. It’s hard not to love companies that give a little extra to make customers happy. Take Panera Bread, who earned nearly a million likes and thousands of shares on a fan Facebook post for giving a customer’s dying grandmother a bowl of clam chowder (and a package of cookies) on a day when that particular soup wasn’t on the menu. The now-famous Facebook post is full of comments from customers nationwide who proclaimed the kind act led them to eat at the restaurant that same night. Panera positive reputation Facebook post

How can a business be generous? Charity donations, corporate responsibility, and volunteerism are tried and true methods, but reputation-building generosity can be as easy as erring on the side of giving. To customers, small gestures like clam chowder on an off day can feel like huge luxuries. They send a message that no matter how small, each customer’s business matters, even if it takes a little extra effort.

Earning a great reputation with hard work and generosity that goes the extra mile certainly doesn’t sound sexy. It sounds like a lot of decidedly un-sexy effort, actually. But it’s clear that building sweat equity and goodwill are the keys to success in the reputation economy. In fact, they’re downright sexy.