Wing and a prayer – the BA/Cadbury crises

Two of the UK’s best-known brands, Cadbury and British Airways, have come under the microscope in the same week, revealing two very different approaches to crisis management.

Two of the UK’s best-known brands, Cadbury and British Airways, have come under the microscope in the same week, revealing two very different approaches to crisis management.

Announcing it was under investigation by both the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in the UK and the Justice Department in the US for alleged price-fixing, BA immediately placed commercial director Martin George and head of communications Iain Burns on a “leave of absence”.

The airline is hoping to ride out the media onslaught with a “business as usual” stance and a refusal to comment on the controversy that could conceivably see the airline fined up to &£850m, and George and Burns sentenced to up to five years in prison if found guilty of wrongdoing. All current advertising and marketing executions remain on course, according to BA.

Lowering the bar

Cadbury Trebor Bassett, however, acted differently following last weekâs announcement that it was to withdraw 1 million bars of chocolate after finding traces of salmonella in seven products. Condemnation followed the discovery that the confectioner waited five months before alerting the Food Standards Agency (FSA) about the contamination.

Refusing to apologise, Cadbury executives have reiterated that the salmonella count was considered “too low” to be of any danger to consumers when first traced in January. Under the media glare, it has pulled its expensive Coronation Street sponsorship idents (according to a Cadbury spokesman they will return “within days”, though ITV says it is for the foreseeable future), and placed all advertising on hold for the “foreseeable future”.

What is going on behind the scenes at each company is open to debate, but industry and crisis management experts point to differences between the two scenarios. Advertising industry executives, brand consultants and air travel analysts have all voiced sympathy for BA. One agency source says: “The OFT investigation will damage the long-term reputation of the brand but in the meantime BA must continue trading and engaging with consumers. Nothing is currently proven.”

A brand expert with inside knowledge of BA adds: “Consumers assume large companies sometimes act in an underhand way to stay competitive, and they won’t abandon BA as long as they perceive it to be safe and reliable with a good route network.” The implication is that BA’s share price, corporate image and investor confidence may be damaged, but consumers will not care if it remains their best or cheapest travel option.

On the other hand, Cadbury has failed to satisfy its responsibility to the public, according to many observers. But Tony Hines, crisis management manager at independent food research organisation Leatherhead International, states: “Cadbury acted in consumers’ best interests by going public. Beforehand, it undertook textbook crisis management when low-level contamination occurred, looking at hundreds of bars and seeking advice.

Played by the book

âCadbury would have assessed risk and decided it could be managed. It could only have worked with the data available and thatâs why companies must be flexible when managing such a situation. Last week, the data obviously showed the problem to be at the stage where it was necessary to act.â

However, nobody seems in doubt that Cadbury’s brand image will suffer greatly. According to one retailer, customers were aghast that any Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars remained on shelves in the days following the announcement.

Another source concludes: “The difference between BA and Cadbury is that people put what Cadbury produces in their children’s mouths. Not telling anyone about the salmonella appears a cynical move. It’s disgusting behaviour by one of Britain’s best brands, which won’t be trusted again for a long time.”

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