Five Brand "Disasters" That Built Positive PR

In the world of brand PR, change is risky. Even a tweak to a product that enjoys a loyal following must be managed deftly. Case in point: the feeding frenzy after Cadbury altered the recipe for its classic crème egg.  The brand’s switch from dairy milk to the more standard cocoa mix chocolate for the egg’s shell resulted in a PR meltdown.  The UK Guardian termed the change “an abomination” and called for fans to “fight for chocolate justice.”

The “shellshock” recalled other cases where well-intended updates or other changes were greeted with customer revolt.  Yet, sometimes, what seems like a PR crisis can have a paradoxical effect. It can rekindle dormant public sentiment, nostalgia, or even positive visibility for a brand or product.

Ever since the launch of New Coke in 1985 — arguably the most storied, and disastrous, product update in U.S. history, marketers have occasionally tapped deep reserves of consumer loyalty that they may not have even known existed. Here are some recent and classic examples.

Positive PR Driven by Loyal Customers: Trop’s Packaging Loses Its Juice

Tropicana never even saw it coming.  When the brand moved to refresh its iconic packaging, customers reacted sourly. They criticized the carton as “sterile” and “generic” and complained that it didn’t stand out on the shelf. Plunging sales figures seemed to confirm the disaster. Feeling the squeeze, Tropicana’s marketers wisely restored the original packaging and apologized to consumers. Trop’s marketing head explained in major media interviews that the brand had listened to its customers and even thanked them for the renewed attention. Crisis averted.

Maker’s Mark Waters Down The Brand Image

This one played out almost like a PR ploy by the bourbon distiller—and, who knows, maybe it was.  Maker’s Mark announced that it would lower the alcohol content of its bourbon to stretch its supply in the face of anticipated product shortages.  Loyal Maker’s customers found the change hard to swallow.  They responded with such outrage that the bourbon retreated on the change within days.  “What we’ve learned is that this is the customer’s brand,” summed up Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels. I’ll drink to that.

Trouble Brews for Twinings

Another PR tempest in a teacup occurred when Twinings tinkered with its 200-year-Earl Grey recipe. Despite a successful market test, the new blend had a bitter reception from Earl Grey fans, some of whom threatened to throw a Boston-style tea party. Customers created a Facebook page dedicated to restoring the original brew. It succeeded, with one comment calling the campaign “democracy at its highest level.”  Smart marketing, too.

Gap Returns to Classic Form

The backlash against Gap’s refashioned logo is familiar to most brand marketers and visual identity experts, and it’s a quintessential case of unintended consequences. A stark new Gap logo triggered a harsh reaction from the social mob, and traditional press was quick to pile on. At first Gap tried to tailor a solution by crowdsourcing new logo designs, but the search only spurred more scorn.  It ultimately reverted to the classic logo, and “Gapgate” faded into brand history. But the irony is that the uproar – which was probably confined to design and marketing professionals – gave its brand currency and may have made it more relevant than it had been in years.

Chevy Hits a Roadblock

Chevy’s backfire wasn’t a product change, and it really didn’t amount to much, but it reawakened some longtime love for the brand. A GM marketing executive tried to mandate the use of “Chevrolet” (instead of “Chevy”) in the name of brand consistency, obviously not realizing what a huge asset a nickname can be. When his private memo became a public joke, Chevy quickly shifted gears to welcome back its old moniker.

A version of this post originally appeared on January 27th, 2015 on MENGBlend.

When Brands Overreact To PR Problems

Social-media-fueled brand controversies are more common than ever in the digital age. But even in the current crisis-of-the-hour media environment, it’s natural for major brands to take slights very seriously. Where millions of dollars are spent and fat profit margins are at stake, overreactions are understandable. You can almost sense the confusion, conflicting advice, and panic beneath the surface.

Most businesses will back down in the face of controversy, even when the criticisms are groundless. Remember when Gap backpedaled as brand-watchers criticized its new logo? Admittedly, the new logo was bland and the backlash probably added color to its reputation, but it was a stunning reversal in such a short time.

Sometimes a brand will simply cave. Home center chain Lowe’s pulled its ads when threatened with a boycott over its support of a reality show called “All-American Muslim.” The decision was met with fresh outrage from progressives, so it was a true lose-lose for the chain. But word like “one million moms” have been known to trigger a hasty media planning redesign.

That’s why it was refreshing when Cheerios, assaulted by YouTube trolls over a charming ad featuring an interracial family, was so unfazed in its response to criticism. Not only did it refuse to back down (and why should it?) but the tone of the brand’s response made it clear that the ad would go on.

Of course, it’s easy to stand your ground when confronted with ugliness, but lots of companies would have quietly killed the ad. More importantly, most probably wouldn’t have produced it in the first place.

So, cheers to Cheerios for wanting to position its brand as inclusive and up-to-date. And even more for unapologetically disabling nasty comments and seeing the PR gold in letting the commercial’s actors speak for the brand.

By meeting its critics head-on instead of overreacting, Cheerios elevated the spot from a progressive commercial to a statement about brand values. And it reaped bowlfuls of good will in the process. Well done.

How To Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR

There are those who think any PR is good PR, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain bad.

Faced with withering reviews for its plan to separate its DVD and streaming businesses into two distinct units, Netflix has canceled Qwikster. This latest plot twist is a bit reminiscent of Gap’s unveiling of that infamous new logo. The negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. Though at first it seemed like a miss for Gap, many brand-watchers think it made the brand more relevant than it had been in a long while.

Netflix doesn’t suffer from lack of currency, and it’s a bit early to tell if it can woo back irate customers. (If Reed Hastings’ recent New York Times magazine interview is any indication, I’d say they still have some work to do.) But bad publicity can, paradoxically, wake up a brand’s loyalists. And there are ways to turn a PR failure into a net gain. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. If offense has been given or customer safety or satisfaction threatened, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. One of my favorite public apologies is the widely viewed video of Domino’s Pizza President Patrick Doyle after the employee stunt that made us all lose our appetites in 2009. Doyle, and the Domino’s brand, had an advantage as the victim of a disgusting hoax. But as brand crises go, the stakes were pretty high, and the company delivered in a way that helped feed our natural sympathy.

The mistake Netflix made, by contrast, was in wrapping a half-hearted mea culpa with additional news that was bound to anger customers. Not good.

Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of  Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that buffeted its reputation on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.

Stay the course. Sometimes, despite a public rush to judgment, a brand is right. Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of annihalating coverage, after its luxury cruise liner resumed calls at Labadee, Haiti shortly after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts and passengers agree that supporting survivors with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. That’s what Taco Bell did when it was slapped with a lawsuit by a customer who had a beef with the meat content of its tacos. It jumped into the food fight, threatening a countersuit, and launching a response through executive videos, a statement on its website, and a major market ad campaign about ingredient quality. The customer suit was quietly dropped.

Make good. Sometimes it’s better to pay – financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement – to protect a brand’s reputation. For many companies, this also comes down to empowering retail or ground-level employees to spot and nip problems in the bud. If a Delta attendant had been able to waive excess luggage fees for returning U.S. veterans, the airline could have saved itself loads of bad reputation baggage after the servicemen took their complaints to YouTube.

The Best PR Moves Of 2010

This year brought well-publicized disasters, misbehaving celebrities, and corporate goofs. But, which individuals and companies communicated most skillfully during 2010? Here are our nominees.

Wikileaks. Whether Julian Assange is a hero or a “high-tech terrorist” depends on your point of view. But in 2010 Wikileaks perfected a media relations strategy for maximum impact for the release of thousands of  leaked diplomatic cables. Previously, Wikileaks had either trickled out its materials too gradually, or overwhelmed the media with an overlarge outpouring of classified information. But, in November, it seemed to get things just right. Its strategy was simple:  simultaneous publication of the leaked materials by five highly credible news organizations. The result was domination of news headlines for days.

Jon Stewart. Only Stewart could draw over 250,000 to a rally that started as a joke. Not only did his “Rally to Restore Sanity” beat Glenn Beck’s crowd by a surprising margin, but this year, Stewart showed he can do what no one else seems to be able to — bust legislative gridlock. His public shaming of the senators blocking the passage of the 9/11 first responders bill actually got the bill through. It earned him acknowledgement from the White House and a comparison to broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow in a glowing New York Times piece. Stewart still insists he’s not political, but his influence is formidable. This guy really gets things done. Jon Stewart in 2012?

The Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, the Tea Party was able to cool some serious internal divisions to speak out with one voice. Despite some candidates who landed in hot water (“I’m not a witch” will live in PR infamy), most of the party’s key players spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. More importantly, its message was never diluted. A full-strength focus on government spending brought the party credibility and congressional seats.

The Chilean government. Its flawless handling of the rescue of 33 miners showed not just leadership on the part of  Sebastian Pinera and his government, but real storytelling genius and media relations savvy. The final rescue scenario was better than any mini-series, complete with a happy ending.

Gap. Yes, I know its logo fiasco looked like a bad fit and a PR blunder, but the company’s ultimate decision to return to the original iconic identity made it more relevant than it’s been in years, at least to a narrow slice of influentials. Not a model PR campaign, but a good example of turning bad publicity into good will.

Conan O’Brien. He started the year by walking away from one of the most coveted gigs in television, and agreeing to a seven-month exile before the premiere of his new show on…basic cable? But Team Coco made clever use of the hiatus. Their social media strategy was genius. His hilarious Twitter feed was vintage Conan, while kicking off a string of updates that kept him in front of fans. Coverage from his “Legally Prohibited” comedy tour ensured his relevance until the debut of his third act this September.

JetBlue. 2010 was a tough year for travel companies. Start with a grounded economy, add higher fares and fewer services, throw in an eruption from an unpronounceable volcano, and top it off with a security controversy. JetBlue not only came out on top again in passenger surveys, but it handled flight attendant Steven Slater‘s unexpected, and highly publicized, exit from the job with PR savvy and typical JetBlue cool.

Facebook. Despite another privacy crisis in 2010, Facebook turned the potential reputation nightmare of the unflattering film “The Social Network” into an opportunity for a charm offensive on the part of founder Mark Zuckerberg. Reaching 500 million members and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year isn’t such a bad way to close out 2010.

Next up: Worst PR Moves of 2010.