• Good Brands Gone Bad

    by  • March 21, 2011 • Branding, Leadership, Marketing

    Call it a hiccup or a long-term slump; every brand faces a crisis. The enemy can be a direct competitor (Myspace trumped by Facebook), a sudden shift in consumer habits (The Beatles impact on Brylcreem), a product recall (Toyota Gas Pedals), an executive’s misbehavior (Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco jailed) or the mishandling of a disaster (BP‘s oil spill). Whether self-created or a swipe from the blind side, crisis recovery can be elusive.

    I’ve always admired J&J for their handling of the Tylenol tampering recall in the 80’s. The J&J folks set the crisis management standard for all others to follow—to be prepared for that inevitable day when disaster WILL strike. I suspect today’s J&J management learned from their predecessors when saddled with the prevalence of product recalls ranging from pills to hip implants. Prudent leaders prepare for calamity. Despite pervasive recall awareness, we have CEOs, many who run companies with substantial capacity to maim the domain of life, with their heads in the sand.

    Not long ago, the entire world watched BP and inept CEO Tony Hayward make blunder after blunder while their crude killed. All the talk about BP caring for the environment was for naught because the brand’s actions violated the brand’s message. Other than the long-overdue removal ofHayward, (who publicly said he wanted his life back), the company has failed to restore its image. Helping the world overcome environmental catastrophes such as the Japan quake might make a damn good start.

    Unlike BP, who mismanaged an accident, Halliburton and Monsanto self-inflicted the ethical decline of their brand image over many years. The majority of Halliburton’s revenue is from the sale of products and services to the oil and gas industry. However, Halliburton is viewed as war-mongering enterprise that made obscene profits from the Iraq War and from questionable government contracts. Eleven years after anointing Dick Cheney with a severance package of $34 million, the Halliburton brand remains in the mud. I see little effort to rectify. The problem is embedded in Halliburton’s culture.

    Monsanto produces genetically-engineered seed; for several years the company has come under persistent criticism from farmers, government and environmentalists for its business practices. You wouldn’t know it from the first page of their website. Monsanto offers, “Better Seed for a Brighter Future. If there is one word to explain what Monsanto is about it would have to be farmers. We create the seeds, the traits, and crop protection chemicals that help farmers produce more food using fewer resources.” Hmm.

    I’ll wrap up with an example of a brand and a category suffering the same fate as Brylcreem. Forty years ago, Brylcreem was imbedded in a hairdressing market that moved from ‘grease’ to ‘dry’ in a very short period of time. Fast-food restaurant, KFC sells fried chicken. Fried foods contribute to obesity. Four years ago the name changed from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC for legal reasons, seemingly to do with the use of the word ‘chicken’. Doesn’t matter; everyone knows what the acronym stands for. Lucky for KFC, some people don’t care about obesity. The category example is Big Tobacco where the market rather than the marketer carved out the universal positioning—‘smoking causes cancer’.

    PS: I was the Canadian Brand Manager of Brylcreem during the demise. In just three years, our sales declined by 50% despite maintaining market share. Ugly to watch.


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    Formerlife: Jacobs Suchard CEO (Kraft, Nabob), Strategy Consultant. Afterlife: Palgrave Macmillan Author, Historical Novelist, Business Journalist

    One Response to Good Brands Gone Bad

    1. Brendan
      March 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm

      >Hi Mr. Bell,

      I have been following your blog for a few weeks now after discovering it through your Fortune article.

      I am interested in writing an article about brand management by focusing on your transition from an executive to a writer / author.

      It is my hope in writing this article that others might learn from your experience how they can successfully change their own personal brand or that of their company.

      Please contact me if you are interested so we can arrange an interview.


      Brendan Munro

      Vancouver Observer – Money Section