Bringing your brand back from the brink

The internet and in particular social networking sites have changed the rules of handling a branding crisis, yet most companies – Toyota being one of the latest examples – are risking their brands’ reputations by failing to adapt their defence strategies to the real-time and candid nature of the online environment.

  • To read the case study on First Direct click here
  • To read about Toyota and Tiger Woods sponsorship click here
  • For Vikki Chowney, editor at Reputation Online’s expert viewpoint click here

Dealing with a crisis is all about restoring control. But social media has made keeping a brand’s reputation from harm much harder, because the need to respond is now a real-time issue.

While many companies are using networks such as Twitter and Facebook for marketing purposes, many are forgetting that they are real-time tools, vital in times of managing a crisis.

Toyota’s failure to respond quickly to customer concerns, for example, is what attracted it such heavy criticism. The car brand has been forced to recall more than 8 million cars over the past three months. It announced its recall in the US in January this year to immediate consumer concern but took a further week to announce that the problem was global.

That lag in real-time response could have cost the car marque up to £7bn in brand value, according to Brand Finance’s valuation estimates. This figure could be devastating at a time when the car industry is struggling to revitalise itself after a protracted economic downturn.

Because Toyota failed to address all its safety issues at once, the story continues to run and run. Just last week, global media outlets ran a video news clip showing an American man describing how he feared for his life when his Toyota Prius brake pedals failed. The story has not moved on.

Other brands have also fallen foul of the new world communications order. Children’s buggy maker Maclaren announced that its buggies were being recalled in the US following reports that several children had lost fingers in its mechanism. But it told Europeans that the very same buggies were not being recalled, leading to many confused parents discussing their concerns over safety on forums.

The initial lack of social media response by both brands highlights their failure to recognise that the internet has changed the line of communication between brand and consumer, according to Allan Blair, director of social media at DDB UK.

“Companies probably had 24 hours in the old days to respond to a crisis and get ahead of the game. Social media and the internet in general has reduced this to the first hour.”

Jonathan Hemus, Insignia

Brands have a fear that putting out communications in the online world will lead to more negativity, Blair says, when the opposite is true. Social media can mend problems rather than make them worse.

“It’s not all negative for brands. When Toyota started doing things with social media, it galvanised the brand. It has Facebook groups offering support. If this communication had been done earlier, then maybe many of the brand’s problems could have been negated,” he explains.

The value of understanding the importance of marketing and communications across multiple platforms is substantial, according to latest YouGov figures. Toyota’s ranking in the research company’s brand perception table has already leapt to 34th place from a low of 40th at the end of February. 

The Japanese car company is now employing a reassurance marketing strategy to rebuild its reputation, telling customers in adverts that “We’re pulling together to make things right”. Incentives such as extended warranties will also be offered to encourage customers back to the brand, as figures show that UK orders have fallen by 7%.

BA, meanwhile, is using YouTube for the first time in its crisis management plans. It has posted a video presented by chief executive Willie Walsh in response to the proposed crew strike action, announced last weekend. The airline is hoping that engaging with customers early with clear information directly from the top will lessen the bad feeling towards the company.

Getting your message across fast is essential. A slow response is a sign that a brand or ­corp­oration doesn’t have a proper crisis management strategy in place, argues Jonathan Hemus, director of reputation management and communications consultancy Insignia. He estimates that at least half of global companies prefer to hope for the best rather than plan for the worst.

“What companies are getting wrong primarily is the preparation phase. They’re not investing sufficient time and investment into making sure they’re prepared if a crisis occurs,” he notes.

Many still have an old-world mentality when it comes to dealing with a crisis. He argues: “Companies probably had 24 hours in the old days to respond to a crisis and get ahead of the game. Social media and the internet in general has reduced this to the first hour.”

Hemus says that considering the amount of money and time that companies invest in their brand, the lack of planning appears negligent.

Being able to respond quickly can help avert damage to the brand in the long run. Domino’s Pizza was praised for its quick response a year ago to some undesirable videos made by employees and posted on YouTube. One showed a staff member putting cheese up his nose before adding it to a customer’s pizza.

Trading personalities: Toyota and Tiger Woods

When golfer Tiger Woods read out a 15-minute prepared speech in February this year, responding to worldwide coverage of his marital infidelities, it aimed to smooth over his relationship with his many former sponsorship partners.

And when Toyota’s chairman Kazuo Okamoto issued an apology to its customers earlier this month, he admitted that the company had got too big, too quickly and needed a rethink in the way it responded to customers. He admitted: “Maybe now we will ask them [customers] to be more patient so we will really give them optimal quality.”

Both brands were apologising to their customers for very different reasons, but Al Moffatt, chief executive of agency network Worldwide Partners, believes they can learn from each other.

“They’ve got to steal a page from each other’s book,” he reflects. He says that Woods’ brand would benefit from acting in a more contrite manner as Toyota has done. Woods’ “apology” speech attacked the media rather than expressing remorse.

Toyota, in contrast, needs to take on a bit of Wood’s sportsman-like personality, says Moffatt. “Toyota needs to act more like Tiger Woods and be aggressive about getting the facts out there. The two essentially have to exchange their personas to correct their issues.”

Moffatt says the car brand has allowed the media and social networks to run with multiple stories without effectively communicating its own position.

Contrary to other crisis management experts, Moffatt believes Toyota should stand firm and not “overreact in terms of incentives”.

Communicating the right personality in a crisis will help consumers or corporates believe in a brand. But as Woods and Toyota demonstrate, it is difficult in the face of a knowledgeable public – especially through social media – to get the tone right.

Moffatt admits that it is a tricky balance: brands must adopt a careful balance between being too stiff in their response, so seeming insincere, or going too far in the apology.

Viewpoint – Vikki Chowney, editor at Reputation Online

Over the past few months, what began as basic customer service failures from the likes of Eurostar and Paperchase [following allegations that it plagiarised an artist’s work] became far bigger issues than they might have been, due to the influence of online chatter.

Once upon a time, complaints about delays and plagiarism might have been swept under the carpet, never to be uncovered. Now news of a brand’s bad behaviour can reach a global audience with frightening speed. With so many horror stories circulating in the press and scaring other businesses into a corner, the concept of proactive reputation management has never been so front of mind.

Is there any way to engage with the social media space and fix a problem? Can you employ traditional crisis management rules, or does the very nature of the internet change the game entirely?

The bottom line is that traditional rules still apply; you’re just dealing with a different environment. With proactive monitoring in place, it’s easier to look immediately at what’s being said, then put out a holding statement before allocating a spokesperson to ensure a consistent message. Post-evaluation is critical – especially within the social media space – where good or bad news spreads instantly.

Brands must think about the audience first when responding to an issue online – the message and the medium must come second. Using appropriate language and aligning any activity to overarching communications objectives is key. A brand that prides itself on being transparent shouldn’t shut up shop the moment something bad happens. That jars against the perceived personality of the company.

“Brands must think about the audience first when responding to an issue online – the message and the medium must come second.”

Vikki Chowney, Reputation Online

Ensuring that legal aspects are covered is always more time-consuming than a communications team thinks it should be, so getting people in the same room speeds this up. Ticking all of these boxes makes sure that the company being attacked becomes the credible source of information about the issue, which prevents speculation and the Twitter whispers from getting out of hand.

From a business perspective, customer service should be made second to none because it will be called upon – very publicly. You should be monitoring mentions of your brand constantly so you can react swiftly when something happens, even if it’s only with a holding statement.

Being seen to do something in a crisis is almost as important as actually doing it.


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