The Comeback Trail
In today’s market, a company’s brand is a snapshot of its relationship with its customers. Like any other relationship, it has to be maintained. If you look at your brand the way some recent TV commercials present a person’s credit score, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Taking a hit to your reputation hurts, even if it’s justified. Whether it’s due to dragging a passenger off a jetliner, repeated acts of fraud and sexual harassment, or an untimely product recall that gets a lot of press, the result is the same: loss of confidence in the brand by customers, the market at large, even your own employees.
Fortunately, what’s true of a good reputation is true of a lousy one as well—attitudes change and can be manipulated in your favor. You might recognize some embattled companies in the previous paragraph by the description of what caused their woes. I’m bringing up United Airlines again this month, not because I have a grudge, but because I feel bad for the company; its actions and policies are no different from any other airline, but it’s always United caught doing the horrible thing so all its competitors can quietly make changes to their own policies. In fairness to United, I’ll point out I’ve had to rebuild my own (professional) reputation more than once, so I’m right there in the glass house with them.
There are a number of strategies for getting stubborn stains out of your brand, and each has its proper place:
Take charge. As we’ve seen time and again, the side with the loudest and most consistent story tends to control the conversation around a crisis. This can be used for nefarious purposes (see my recent column on the post-facts era), but it’s also a useful tactic for keeping a bad situation from getting worse; a strongly presented but calm message that everything is under control can help to cool things down while you do damage control.
Own it. Sometimes there’s no way to spin the bad news. The deed has been done, it’s been caught on camera, and there’s no excuse. This is the time for courage. If a company can say, “We screwed up badly, we’re sorry, and here’s how we will make amends,” it can look less like a villain and more like an entity that made an error in judgment. Apologies can be powerful messages if delivered correctly, and combining one with reparations will go a long way toward leaving the incident in the past.
Excise the rot. This is a great tactic when what’s hurting the brand is an individual or group whose behavior has cast a shadow on the business as a whole. Most often, it’s a spokesperson or mascot who gets cuts loose after getting caught in some kind of mess, and the brand proceeds with business as usual. Bill Cosby, Jared Fogel, and Lance Armstrong were brand reps, and they’re now only mentioned in jokes or court proceedings. And yet, people continue to use Jell-O products, Subway, and the United States Postal Service. Keep quiet what you paid the disgraced rep to go away and keep your head down, and the problem will fade in time.
Bury it. I don’t mean this in the sense of actually hiding wrongdoing, but in the sense of distancing your company from the stain as thoroughly as possible. Excising the rot is one way when the problem is guilt by association. But what if the nature of your business and the scale of your offenses have left the brand lower than a snake’s belly, and the mention of your name spikes people’s blood pressure? Simple: Change your name. Phillip Morris became Altria Group when its corporate practices were revealed to be as toxic as its products. Blackwater, the mercenary company (sorry, private military contractor), changed its name to Xe Services after its operatives were convicted of shooting civilians—and recently changed its name again, to Academi. Most recently, Time Warner Cable rebranded itself as Spectrum, because the only customers it could hold were masochists.
However you choose to rescue your brand, realize there will be work to be done, and consequences to weather, and no problem goes away overnight. Most importantly, remember that such a tactic is a relatively quick fix—a stopgap measure while you solve what’s really wrong with your business. Fool yourself into thinking it’s a smoke screen and sooner or later you’ll be in the same trouble all over again.
Marshall Lager is senior analyst for customer engagement at Ovum, a global technology analyst firm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.twitter.com/Lager.