Can brands ever come back from the brink?

Can brands ever come back from the brink?
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As a brand, you never know when a crisis is around the corner. But it’s how you deal with that crisis that can mean the end or a resurgence of interest.

Over the last few months, the world has been glued to the Oscar Pistorious case. Like many celebrities, Pistorious had become a brand in himself. Famous for his powerful back story and triumph over adversity, coupled with his boyish good looks and athletic prowess, these things combined to make him one of the most in-demand sportsmen for marketers.

He had sponsorship agreements with powerhouse brands such as Nike (who worryingly at the time of the shooting was ironically running a ‘Bullet in the Gun’ campaign for Pistorious) and Oakley; that were worth a reputed $2m (US) per year. And whilst these brands were initially behind the athlete, as more details of the alleged murder came to light they quickly distanced themselves from the falling star.

While no one can deny the truly tragic situation that resulted in the loss of Reeva Steenkamp, you have to consider whether Oscar has already been sentenced to life?

If guilty there is little that can be done but if found innocent, then I’d argue no – and here’s why.

Firstly, let’s look at Tiger Woods whom, prior to being found out to be a very, very active adulterer, was the golden boy of golf and set to become the world’s first billionaire sportsman. Following revelations of multiple affairs, and a subsequent bizarre accident outside his Florida home in which he crashed his car into several hedges and a fire hydrant leaving him with facial lacerations that some at the time attributed to his wife, Woods’ reputation as a family man and ambassador for the game was left in tatters.

Like Pistorious, Woods has become a brand in himself with multiple multi-million dollar endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, EA Sports, Tag Heur, Gillette, Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors to name a few. In the immediate wake of the scandal all of the above, with the exception of Nike and EA Sports, dropped or suspended the superstar. It could be argued that the two remaining sponsors were too heavily and financially involved with Woods to make the same snap decision as the others.

While no PR practitioner in the world would suggest that crashing his car and getting a ticket was a media savvy strategy in light of the situation, his carefully crafted actions thereafter were sufficient to begin the lengthy brand rebuilding process.

Much like organisations in the midst of a crisis, the best way to gain public trust and support is to accept responsibility, maintain consistent messaging, demonstrate sincerity and communicate efficiently with key stakeholders.

For Woods, this started with the notoriously private star making a most uncomfortable (for the viewer as well as himself) public statement about his actions, where he blamed the excesses of ‘fame and money’ for his choices.

Whilst heavily scripted and seemingly devoid of any real remorse, it was the first step on a long road to restoring his brand. The sterile delivery was countered with messages of thanks to those who had supported him, including his wife whom he commended for the poise she had shown during the scandal. He made apologies to the right people – the fans that were let down by his actions, his family and his sponsors. His promises of focusing on building his character and integrity, and earning back the trust of fans and family alike, resonated with the golfing community and world in general.

Following this, he took a step back from the golf to focus on rebuilding his family life. Whilst his efforts to reconcile with his wife were ultimately futile, leading to a divorce in 2011, this was a still a clever move as the media and the public often have a short memory.

A further (ahem) master-stroke was when he later announced he would return at the 2010 Masters – a tournament that made Woods a golfing icon after he became the youngest ever winner in 1997. In a move that mirrored the return of the prodigal son, he threw himself in front of the golfing world and asked for forgiveness. Ultimately, he came fourth in the tournament which was regarded as a remarkable achievement given the lack of tournament play and personal adversities that he had overcome.

What this did, more than any words could, is remind the world that it was Tiger – the golfer, that they had fallen in love with. From there, his steady form and improved on course persona gained back some of the lost fans and created new ones. With the popularity came the return of the sponsors, and whilst he may no longer be golf’s golden boy, a moniker now attached to Adam Scott, he survived a crisis that many brands would have not.

Now, we’re not saying that the infidelities come close to the crime that Pistorious is accused of, but that there are parallels in that; both were esteemed athletes whom inspired people the world over. In some cases, Pistorious’ story and success, along with his ability to overcome his personal adversities made him more of an endearing star than Woods.

But the events of Valentine’s Day 2013 have overshadowed all that he had achieved. But, if we play Devil’s advocate for a moment and imagine that his is found innocent – can he, or any brand for that matter, recover from such a crisis?

Yes…depending if the right strategies are in place and if you have sufficient patience. Remember, reputations take years to build and minutes to destroy.

Where Oscar has faltered to date is in his varying responses, constantly changing version of events and shifting of blame which does his cause no good, both legally and in brand terms. Also, reports that he had not apologised until in the public court arena have not helped his public perception, and only fuels scepticism that he’s using his emotion as a means to buy time when pressed with difficult questions.

If we change tack for a moment and look at this from a corporate point of view, it always astounds me when a company tries to recover its reputation with a highly-publicised “rebrand” that costs a significant investment but resonates with no one and to an outsider (the consumer) looking in, all you get is a change of a logo.

Corporate image is derived from consistent behaviours, word of mouth in the marketplace and perceived integrity. Therefore, I would actually recommend taking the reverse action to a rebrand. Be clear about the extent of damage and your weaknesses in dealing with the crisis, and build strategies that aren’t merely cosmetic enhancements but deeply entrenched corporate change.

Start from the CEO, then infiltrate to the leadership team and workforce. Once there’s a solid internal focus that aligns with the desired brand ethos, identify all key stakeholders and take a ‘head down, bum up’ approach to rebuild and connect. The most effective reputational change comes from stakeholders observing true change and improvement. An upfront rebrand or a short ad campaign will not regain public trust – people need to witness the change for themselves.

From there, it’s a case of returning to business as usual and usurping the negative news with positive stories – community or employee endeavours, new appointments, CEO and corporate profiles, charitable donations etc. The mechanism will depend on the severity of the crisis but by getting good news out there, you’re slowly pushing the negative news down everyone’s feed both on the internet and in their own minds.

When it comes to repairing brand reputation, I believe no matter the situation, there is an ability to turn the situation around.

As for Oscar?

I’m an optimist, and believe if he is found innocent he can rebuild his reputation and even go on to be a stronger brand. But some fundamental aspects to his approach and persona need to change and change now, before the ruling.

With the trial still ongoing, it will be interesting to see what the outcome is.

Nicole Reaney, director, InsideOut PR

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