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October 26, 2011
When Good Brands Go Bad
 
60 Minutes is at the door. Are you ready to defend your brand?

The business world is uncertain, risky, and forever changing, so it's no surprise that your brand will probably face some rocky roads throughout its lifetime, along with a little uninvited media attention. Whether due to a natural disaster, a product recall, a competitor’s maneuver, bad judgment, a customer complaint, or some other factor, your brand strength could be put to the test when you least expect it.
 
Brand shakeups happen every day and then the spotlight is on the brand and the surrounding events and players. The media, your stakeholders, your employees, and your customers will be demanding answers and assurance that you are handling things in the right way.
 
No brand is immune. An entrepreneurial start-up, an individual brand, or a big organization can get beat up without warning.
 
So when brands go bad, what separates the survivors from the big losers; the sustainable ones from the forever broken ones?
 
It’s not what hits a brand upside the head but rather how they get back in the game that matters. I’ve watched and researched brands from around the world, big and small, when they are tested. And I’ve seen common actions that I call brand turnaround game changers. These actions can bring brands — even in the worst places — back to glory.
 
Should your number be called and you find your brand on the hot seat, take responsibility and follow these actions. Your road to recovery will be smoother and you can prevent long-term damage.
 
To illustrate a brand-shaking situation, let’s pretend your employees or a vendor did something crazy, broke the law, dismissed ethical practices, or made a big mistake, and the word is out. It’s on the news and being talked about in social media. What should a smart brand do?
 
During this trying time, you must own up and take control of the situation. This doesn't mean you should admit guilt or make excuses, but you should take timely responsibility and demonstrate sound actions toward finding solutions to the situation.
 
As much as you might want to go into hiding and reply with, “No comment,” you must stay present, with confident communications and poise, so the public and your stakeholders do not lose their trust in you or your brand and further negative consequences are contained.
 
Bad things happen to good brands. You can let an unfortunate event kill your brand or you can recover quickly from the event by taking these steps.
  • Take an inventory of the situation before you speak.
  • Acknowledge the facts and that you and your team is actively seeking solutions.
  • Build a clear narrative that reflects your brand’s essence and is relevant to the situation.
  • Decide what venues are best to tell your story.
  • Apologize, when appropriate.
  • Select the most effective voice for your brand.
  • Leverage the best impression.
  • Keep the message positive and honest.
  • Manage the media; don’t let the media manage you.
Avoiding the situation will further suspicion and possibly result in more negative publicity for your brand. Also, remember that the more high-profile the brand is, the higher expectations will be on all fronts.
 
To start, stay present. This means taking ownership. Do this in a diplomatic way, demonstrating empathy and concern for all stakeholders, including employees, the community, your customers, and those involved in the situation.
 
Remember that the media can be your friend and is a powerful tool that can heavily influence public opinion. Leverage journalists, news sources, and technology from the get-go. First impressions depicted by the media are key here, so think carefully before you answer any questions or attempt to explain anything. And because of the Internet, remember that anything you say or do can be kept on record and visible to the public for many years to come.
 
Choose an outlet that best represents your brand and how to address the problem. Is it a press conference, written and/or verbal statements, social media, or other Web resources, radio, TV, or some other outlet? Your venue of choice should be based on the event and the magnitude of the initial brand shakeup. But you should also be sensitive to current market conditions and other news, and how your story fits in with those.

Be sure that your website and social media channels have current information regarding the shakeup and the steps you're taking to fix what has gone wrong. You can even create a microsite dedicated solely to this purpose.
 
The communications voice should match your brand and reflect the tone for your plan of attack and recovery. Know your audience, build your starting narrative, craft a compelling story, and speak the truth. Be sure not to make false promises or have an unrealistic positive outlook if you do not have supporting facts.
 
Most importantly, show that you're committed to doing whatever it takes to tackle the situation. As I said before, any kind of avoidance, delayed response, or blame game could potentially raise doubts and questions in regards to the values and credibility of your brand.
 
At the same time, know when to fold. There may come a point when you have done everything you can and now need to remove your brand's presence from the public radar screen and get back to your business.
 
This article is based on content from Karen Post’s latest book, Brand Turnaround (McGraw-Hill 2011).

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Karen Post, aka The Branding Diva®, is an international branding expert, consultant, and speaker. She has been featured in a broad range of media outlets, including Bloomberg TV and radio, CBS's "The Early Show," The New York Times, The New York Post, NPR, Fast Company, and The Boston Globe. She is also the author of Brand Turnaround (McGraw-Hill) and Brain Tattoos: Creating Unique Brands That Stick in Your Customers' Minds (AMACOM).

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