February 1, 2008

Brand Recovery: Communications in the Face of Crisis

When a crisis strikes your brand, you can avert backlash from consumers — and even strengthen your brand — with well-considered and thoughtfully deployed communications.

Topics: Marketing

In this adaptation of a research brief from the School's Columbia CaseWorks, Gita v. Johar, the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business, proposes a comprehensive crisis communications framework to help restore consumer trust, illustrating these recommendations using cases of both successful and unsuccessful recovery from brand crises.

JetBlue was the target of much adverse attention after a series of storms on Valentine's Day 2007 halted air traffic in the eastern United States. While most airlines cancelled flights in anticipation of the storm, JetBlue opted to allow passengers to board their planes and wait for conditions to improve. When the weather only got worse, planes ended up frozen on tarmacs, with passengers stuck on the planes for up to 11 hours. How should JetBlue have responded to the criticism and negative publicity that inevitably followed?

The incident that sets off a crisis could seem minor but also could be magnified by circumstances. In the case of Procter & Gamble (P&G), distributors of a competitor's brand, Amway, spread a rumor that P&G donated large amounts of its revenues to the Church of Satan. As fanciful as this rumor may sound, it has troubled P&G's management for decades and led to several lawsuits. P&G says it has sustained major losses, including hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and other damages.

When a crisis hits, consider how severe it is from the viewpoint of current and potential customers. Will customers classify the event precipitating the crisis as serious? What will the media slant be, and how will this influence customers' perceptions?

If the firm has shown no pattern of crisis-prone behavior, then consumers are likely to first question why and how the event happened. Consumer-psychology research helps us understand the best way for a firm to respond in different types of crisis situations, depending on the response to these key consumer queries:

Is This True?

Customer beliefs about the event are likely to be based on whether someone they know experienced it, where they saw or heard about it (source credibility), how often they are exposed to it and how plausible it is that the brand would behave that way.

Who is Responsible?

Consumers are likely to blame the brand for the transgression if they already do not like the brand, are not committed to the brand or do not trust the brand; if the crisis is severe; or if there is no easy-to-explain alternative.

Was it Intentional?

Did the firm act on purpose? Or was it unaware of what was happening? Could it have averted the crisis? Consumers will get their answers from media reports and from their own feelings toward the brand, the brand's history and the likelihood of innocence. These answers will determine how hard the brand needs to work to regain consumer trust.

Will This Type of Thing Happen Again?

Consumers who have had prior positive experiences with the brand and like it are more likely to forgive it, provided they feel the transgression won't happen again. If consumers believe there is a recurring pattern of transgression, they are likely to leave the brand altogether, even if the crisis is not very severe. In the case of New York'based ice cream chain CremaLita, the continued misstatement of its product's fat content led to severe short-term drops in sales and the closing of more than half of its Manhattan stores during the year of the crisis. Ironically, severe crises may be perceived as relatively rare, and consumers are apt to believe that a negative event of great magnitude is less likely to happen again.

What Does This Event Say About The Brand?

If other companies have had similar problems, consumers may not make sweeping generalizations about the brand. If other firms haven't had similar problems, a halo effect may ensue, where an isolated negative event with direct implications for only one feature of the brand spills over to affect beliefs about other features. The halo effect is especially likely with customers who are less loyal and less committed.

Communications Arsenal

Your communications strategy should provide consumers with answers to the questions posed above. The answers you provide depend on whether the information provoking the crisis ' the transgression ' is objectively true or not.

The “Come Clean” Response

If the company is clearly at fault and the crisis is severe, apologize and accept responsibility, communicate all the bad news at once and do not try to minimize the situation. If the transgression was unintentional, explain this by communicating policies and procedures that should have prevented the crisis, and discuss how you will prevent these types of events from occurring again. If your message is compelling, customers may have an even stronger affinity for the brand than they did before the crisis hit.

In severe cases, corrective action may be necessary to reduce perceptions of responsibility and intentionality. The apology and admission of guilt should be accompanied by a polish the halo strategy to overcome potential backlash.

The “Polish The Halo” Response

Firms need to be vigilant and guard against spillover from features of the brand that are central to the crisis to other features. Polish the brand image through advertising and PR activities that emphasize the positive aspects of the brand without seeming to excuse the transgression in any way.

The polish the halo strategy has the advantage of working even when customers invest less attention in the specifics of a crisis, making this option a viable choice in less severe cases. This strategy is important to use with uncommitted customers, who are far less likely to refute negative messages themselves.

The “Not Just Me” Response

These transgressions may not be unique to your brand. Provide cues that help consumers construct a story line that absolves your brand of sole responsibility for the event. For example, could market conditions have provoked this crisis for any competing brand as well? This message can help consumers put the transgression in perspective and thus lead the way to brand forgiveness. This not just me response should be especially effective with committed customers, who are prone to provide counterarguments themselves and need only be provided with information cues.

The “Yes, But” Response

This response involves explaining the reasons for the crisis and/or downplaying the damage done and can be used only when the accusation is valid and the crisis is not severe. Justification is especially needed when responding to customers who are less committed to the brand. Combine this strategy with a polish the halo strategy.

The “No, Not I” Response

If the accusation against the brand is not true, denial could be a useful strategy if target consumers are committed to the brand and do not perceive the crisis as severe. Denial has to be plausible. Providing a narrative that absolves the brand completely and underscores the trustworthiness of this message is key. This strategy will be most effective for responding to committed customers. The polish the halo approach may be more effective with customers who are less committed.

Denial should be used only if the accusations have gained traction, are clearly linked to the brand and are widely reported in the media. Otherwise, denial could be seen as an admission of guilt.

The “Rebuttal” Response

When consumers believe that they personally are at risk (for example, from previously unannounced side effects of prescription drugs), brands should respond with a point-by-point rebuttal. A severe crisis requires a fast response with complete information to help customers rebut the accusation if it is invalid. Ignoring the attack, even if it is not valid, could sink the brand.

Even highly committed customers have been shown to react negatively when a crisis is severe. In such cases, help consumers integrate the counterarguments by framing them in a way that is similar to the framing of the attack.

The rebuttal response also works for crises that are not severe but are in danger of being perceived as severe by customers who are less committed. Committed consumers spontaneously question the validity of an attack and are less likely to need help generating counterarguments.

The “Inoculation“ Response

This strategy requires anticipating a crisis and preparing consumers for it by giving them counterarguments that point out that the attack is not valid or not important or not indicative of the true nature of the brand. An inoculation message acts like a vaccine, preventing the 'crisis virus' from attacking the brand. It fortifies consumers' confidence so that they won't believe the crisis is as severe as it will be made out to be in the media. This strategy is particularly effective if the crisis is severe and likely to receive a lot of media coverage.

The “Attack The Accuser” Response

If the accusation is severe, it may be necessary to attack the accuser to decrease the credibility of the claim. If the unjustified claim originated from a competitor and then took off, the brand could bring this to light and show that vested interests are at work. This strategy is best used in small doses; it could backfire if it is viewed as being unfair or defensive.

 

Communications can defuse a crisis by helping consumers understand why it happened and by providing a clear and cohesive narrative that answers their questions in a compelling way. By choosing wisely from the communications arsenal arrayed here, you can stave off backlash from consumers and even bolster your brand.

 

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