Mark Ritson

Neither is the crisis reserved for a few dodgy continental suppliers. The nature of global supply chains and the incessant pressure to reduce costs means that it has afflicted a veritable who’s who of British grocery brands: Tesco, the Co-op, Nestlé, Iceland, Findus, Aldi.

It does not get any bigger or more branded than this. So will these big brands survive such a dramatic and serious breach of trust?

The advice is already emerging thick and fast from the PR mavens who have knocked out the usual “How to manage a crisis” claptrap to all and sundry. If I summarise one of these experts I can summarise all of them: recognise the problem, be honest, take prompt and decisive action and keep your customers informed.

It’s not exactly rocket science and none of this is particularly incorrect either. What’s missing, however, is any sense of differentiation or brand positioning in the advice being doled out by PR gurus. Never once did it occur to any of these experts that Tesco’s response to the crisis should be different from Iceland’s. Or that Nestlé’s strategy should be different from that of Findus.

The problem for most PR firms is that they don’t really understand brand. They derive most of their crisis management playbook from the same 30-year-old crisis. In 1982, when seven people died from mistakenly consuming Cyanide pills that had been deliberately inserted into Tylenol bottles, the management team at Johnson & Johnson handled the crisis to perfection.

J&J immediately recognised the problem, informed the public of the threat and – even though it knew the company was not to blame – withdrew its entire supply of 32 million bottles from shelves across America. It was only after the threat of further tampering was nullified through a new triple-seal tamper-proof bottle that Tylenol eventually returned to shelves.

It was a first-class approach to handling the crisis and one that resulted in Tylenol actually increasing brand equity and growing market share in the aftermath of the crisis. But the point missed by the PR industry that uses this case as the basis for its subsequent crisis planning is that it was a very brand-centric response from J&J. Written in 1943 by then chairman Robert Wood Johnson, the J&J Credo which drives every decision the company takes, is famous for challenging the firm to always put the needs and wellbeing of its customers ahead of its own corporate wellbeing.

That was why J&J moved so fast to withdraw Tylenol in 1982 and communicate so openly to customers. It wasn’t best practice, generic crisis management. It was good old-fashioned brand- driven strategy.

The only rule of branding is ‘To Thine Own Self be True’. What worked so well for J&J would not necessarily have the same impact for other brands with different brand positionings. The true challenge for horse-flesh afflicted brands as they survey their tattered reputations is not to follow the generic path but look at their brand positioning and respond accordingly.

Let me give you a good example. When Southwest Airlines ejected film director Kevin Smith from one of its flights in 2010 for being too large he tweeted his disgust to his 2 million followers and the airline was quickly engulfed in a major crisis. Out came the generic crisis management handbook and the airline quickly assessed the issue, admitted that it had ejected Mr Smith, gave him its “heartfelt apologies” and offered him a $100 voucher. Smith was dismissive of the offer and the crisis damaged a brand previously deemed more laid back, genuine and friendly than the big national carriers.

Compare that with Ryanair. When the airline got into hot-water about a half-serious proposal to apply a “fat tax” on heavier passengers, the company ignored the generic crisis handbook and went for a more distinctive, brand-based approach. “Nobody wants to sit beside a really fat fucker on board,” was chief executive Michael O’Leary’s response. “We have been frankly astonished at the number of customers who don’t only want to tax fat people but torture them.” A cheap, aggressive and thoroughly low-end reaction. And one that fits the Ryanair brand.

I’m not advising Britain’s beleaguered brands to follow Ryanair’s approach but also don’t simply follow the generic PR approach. Find a response that is true to your brand values.
So while Tesco should apologise that its spaghetti bolognese contains 60 per cent horsemeat it could also emphasise that the other 40 percent is still beef, because Every Little Helps. I’m joking, but you get the idea…