From airlines getting into trouble due to racist comments to carbonated beverage giants trivializing real issues, there is sometimes a fine line between creativity and disaster. Finding this fine line can be a challenge, and many brands have fallen flat as a result. But it’s not just the branding and messaging that can go wrong, you can also ruffle feathers with terrible customer service. United Airlines received a lot of bad press for forcibly shoving an elderly passenger from his seat to make room for an employee who was basically freeloading. Then there are the corporate scandals that can plague the company and every major brand associated with it. ICICI Bank’s CEO gets investigated for some wrong-doing and the brand takes a bit. A single government lab in a province somewhere finds lead in your flagship instant noodles and every state proceeds to ban the product for a while. Some of these brands recover from the hit and some don’t.
The point being, tarnishing your brand image is actually easier than you think, in this blog, we will explore damage control. Here’s what to do, and what not to do.
#1: Do tell your side of the story pragmatically, without blowing your own trumpet
Unfortunately, we live in a strange world where people will sometimes undermine their competition or former employer to rise up in the ranks or for a quick moment of fame. It’s not uncommon to hear of brands being slandered even though they have done nothing wrong. Sometimes brands may suffer a bad rep due to slander or disgruntled ex-employees, customers and sometimes even fake news published by competitors. If this is the case, the brand should simply state their side of the story in the most practical way possible, without getting defensive. Customers are smart and they do not like to be pushed to a conclusion, they like to come to their own judgment. If you give people the freedom to hear your side without making yourself sound like a victim or someone who is holier than thou, they will identify the straightforwardness and you may win back their trust. If you go too far with self-praise and being defensive, your customers may think you are overcompensating because you have something to hide. The key here is the relationship you have with your audience. If this is built on a solid foundation of shared values then they are more likely to listen to you and believe your version. As we have said many times -that kind of a relationship can be built only if the actions of your brand, before and after the crisis, are transparently based on your Purpose.
#2: Keep a keen eye on your media channels
If the brand is in the news for all the wrong reasons, it’s important to monitor the brand on all digital channels. People will have their own opinions and perspectives which they will share all over social media. This may snowball and do even more damage. Word of mouth has always been a great marketing tool, and social media is making amplifying the voice of the audience. Brands are always under the social scanner, even more so when they are infamous. So if a brand is in the news for the wrong reasons, then social media channels should be scanned carefully for early signs of unrest. This is a customer service kind of task/ The way the responses are handled are also very important. One must not seem too robotic or too unapologetic, this could derail your efforts to present your side of the story.
#3: Have a plan in place
If the brand is international or has a pan-country presence, it’s best to make an official statement. Whether this is a press release or a statement online is up to the brand, but avoiding the situation or waiting for it to blow over is usually a terrible idea. The sooner the brand takes ownership and makes amends, the faster it can start the task of bouncing back. There’s a lot to learn from the infamous worm infestation disaster suffered by Cadbury Dairy Milk in October 2003. After a dramatic drop in sales and a lot of negative press, the brand was shaken, but they regrouped. They came up with a comprehensive plan. They changed their packaging to make it more visibly robust, they employed voices that the people could trust to showcase their intent to change. Slowly they managed to build back the credibility and trustworthiness of the brand. Although Cadbury did not indulge in playing the blame-game, they issued an apology along with a statement which said that the infestation happened in a storage facility, and not in the manufacturing process. The brand spent the next 6 months restoring the confidence in their patrons and retailers. Two months later, Cadbury debuted a new packaging and invested around 15 crores on machinery, and although the metallic poly-flow was more expensive by 15%, there was no price hike in the bars itself. The double wrapping protection helped restored the faith of patrons and retailers and the brand bounced back.
#4: When the damage is done
There are times when the wound is far too deep, and the only possible way out is to change your identity and assume new messaging, positioning, and branding. A rebranding is the worst case solution. If a brand has a good product or service, and a bit of good fortune on their side, they could just bounce back. There was a time when most mothers would have avoided Maggi Instant Noodles like the plague. When the noodles were banned in June 2015, this spelled disaster for Nestle. The allegations were serious, and people were starting to doubt the much-loved product. The company recalled 38,000 tonnes of Maggi noodles and destroyed them. But after the ban was relaxed, the brand climbed back up to the lead with 60% of the market share in 2017. So how did this brand manage to convince people to consume their noodles? Through sophisticated branding. They knew their target group was, bachelors, students, and people who just don’t have the time or resources to put too much thought into the food they were consuming to satisfy an instant hunger. They leveraged their tagline “Taste bhi, health bhi”. The convenience factor was central to everything the brand was communicating about its value. Another powerful tool was leveraging the emotional connect to the food. The sheer convenience meant this food was often associated with memories such as college, hostel life, trekking through the Himalayas and noticing a tea stall which sold steaming hot Maggie noodles, the campaign “Meri Maggi — 2-minute mein Khushiyan” drove home just that message. The brand dug deep into what it stood for to the audience that mattered -and loudly said all the things that made them what they were. The message hit home.
#5: Never feed the fire
United Airline’s response to the customer service incident cited earlier also offers some instructional value. According to a report by Marketing Week, United Airlines CEO, Oscar Muñoz shared an email with his employees which was leaked on the internet. The email stated that Dr. Dao was being “disruptive and belligerent” and he also went on to praise employees for following “established procedures”. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Dr. Dao lost two teeth and suffered a broken nose thanks to flight attendants forcibly removing him from his seat on an overbooked flight. This, predictably, blew up in the brand’s face. In a startling reflection of that, the brand’s social sentiment went from 91% positive a few days before the incident to 69% negative on the day of the incident with over 547 million views being garnered by #flight3411.
#6: Reach out to long-time loyalists
This is like putting the final dressing on a wound to accelerate the healing. When the time is right, you can reach out to brand advocates and ambassadors to issue a transparent statement to show their support and solidarity. Brands should do this only in cases of slander or misinformation. No celebrity in their right mind would choose to speak on behalf of a brand that is clearly in the wrong. However, if the brand has been a victim of a malicious campaign or slander, the long-time supporters will step up because of their relationship. A great example of this would be the posters of Amitabh Bachan candidly snacking on a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk with the caption, “Don’t worry, he happy”, plastered all over the country. This is, of course, not restricted to celebrity advocates. We have spoken of the strong relationships that get formed between brands that walk their Purpose talk, and the consumer who resonates with those values. Those consumers also become defenders and advocates of the brand. They give the brand a second chance. They talk about the brand to their community. In effect, they become mini-influencers.
In conclusion, we would like to add -take ownership, don’t get defensive. Imagine you’re at a party, you hastily reach out to pick up a glass of wine, but you knock it down instead, staining the carpet and a few dinner guests. Would you immediately apologize and take initiative to clean up the mess? Or would you simply stand up, put your hands across your chest and blame the glass or the placement of the wine glass or the general vibe of the party. If you choose the latter, chances are you won’t be invited to any dinner parties after that. It’s the same with brands. It’s up to you to take ownership, offer a solution and reposition yourself if required. Over time you will recover, as long as you are true to your Purpose. Always keep it real, and your brand should make a full recovery!
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