Forget about the NCAA tournament -- it's time once again to create your brackets for The Worst Company in America in 2011. While investors might dismiss this online competition as a harmless way to blow off steam, it can actually provide important clues to how the public perceives a given company -- and how that opinion might affect future profits.

A race to the bottom
The Consumerist, run by the folks from Consumer Reports, has assembled a fascinating slate of corporate match-ups in its online battle to determine the worst of the worst. No-brainer candidates such as BP (NYSE: BP), which is still reeling from its reputation-ruining Gulf oil spill last year, butt heads with more surprising contenders such as eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY) PayPal. (In case you're wondering, The Consumerist offers numerous reader horror stories about the company to back up its placement in the tournament, including PayPal's alleged assertion that one woman "stole her own identity.")

I also wondered why Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) was matched up against Microsoft, other than the fact that they both sell similar electronics. Apple's iPhone relationships with providers like much-hated AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) -- both of which are also tournament contenders -- may have helped propel it into the running, along with 2010 incidents such as Antennagate.

The Consumerist's opening article discussing the match-ups is an entertaining read, describing 2009 "winner" Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) as a "consistent workhorse" in this competition. Clearly, Fool Rick Munarriz wasn't alone in expressing his hatred of the cable giant last November: "I have a beef with Comcast -- and I swear it will boil over into an investable point."

When peeves pinch profits
Corporate reputations should matter to investors. While the loyalty of happy customers can be difficult to quantify, unchecked consumer loathing will eventually lead to literal negative sales. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) has been a well-known consumer "good guy" for years, but its recent raft of recalls and other problems seem to have tarnished its reputation, big time. Video-rental chain Blockbuster's stingy late fees and often subpar selection led to its own bankrupt downfall at the hands of Netflix, which has made an amazingly successful business of giving its customers exactly what they want.

Long-term investors should always keep a close eye on the reputations of the companies they invest in. Rotten corporate behavior often proves profitable in the short run, but in the long term, consumer payback can wreak havoc on misbehaving companies -- and their competitors will stand poised to pounce at the first sign of weakness.

What would you nominate for the worst company in America? Let us know in the comments box below.

Check back at every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.