Keeping Consumer Trust During a Crisis

At what point does sight, sound, and motion make a difference when trying to connect with consumers during a crisis?

To answer that, let’s start with TV Copy 101. TV ads work well because they drive or reinforce emotional connections; they enable benefit visualizations; and they typically have some form of dramatic effect you don’t find in other advertising forms.

This is a long way of saying I think Mattel’s use of online video featuring its CEO reaching out to consumers on the toy recall issue is right on the mark. It works far better than a letter, a newspaper ad, a Web site button, or a downloadable PDF file (the curious, impossible-to-share format of choice during the pet-recall issue).

Mattel’s exercise in on-demand visual persuasion should also highlight untapped opportunities with online video.

Hardly Out of the Woods

This isn’t to suggest Mattel is out of the woods, or even close. Indeed, consumer fear around tainted toys, reflected in just about every form of CGM (define) on record, is just heating up. Even my wife and I, parents of twins who reign over countless toys of every shape and size, can’t stop talking about the issue.

But using video to calm public and parental anxiety works and represents a smart first step. It connects emotionally, demonstrates empathy, and uses the highest trust figure in the organization.

It’s hard not to recall Jim Burke, CEO at Johnson & Johnson during the early ’80s Tylenol-tampering crisis. In an case study codified interview (I watched it a dozen times my first year at Harvard Business School), Burke used compassion, sincerity, and “I’d be upset, too” empathy to address a painfully complex and tragic issue.

Many would argue this poignant moment made J&J turn the corner. Even then, well before the online video age, no print ad could compare to seeing Burke’s eyes and hearing his voice as he discussed the issue.

The Pet Food Recall

Compare Mattel’s and Tylenol’s crises to Menu Foods’ near-lifeless approach to the recent pet food recall. Yes, there were words of concern, even compassion, from Menu Foods’ CEO, but the message came across in, well, words only. You don’t even feel as if his wee few words on the matter are addressed to everyday pet owners.

The one document posted with CEO commentary on the site reflects formal remarks at the company’s annual meeting. The message content is right: “As pet owners ourselves, we have been saddened by the events of the last four months,” he notes. But you wonder whether consumers will give him even 10 percent of the credit for those words, given his choice of communication channels.

At the end of the day, half the equation in crisis management or defensive branding is appearing real, accessible, trustworthy, and sincere.

The CFM Effect

Companies that strike the right emotional connection with consumers typically get rewarded in the CGM currents.

We saw that clearly in the well-received and -appreciated Jet Blue video apology posted on YouTube by the then-CEO David Neeleman (arguably an even bolder effort than Mattel’s). Consumers fortified the brand media with their own commentary, reactions, opinions, and, fortunately for Jet Blue, reinforcing views. I like to refer to this as consumer-fortified media (CFM).

As I’ve maintained many times in this column, we can never underestimate the role of emotion in nurturing trust, confidence, and advocacy. As consumers, we often think rationally and respond emotionally. Jeff Jarvis felt outrage when he sprayed digital venom about Dell computer about the Web.

Consumer affairs or customer service are critical parts of the emerging marketing mix. It’s one of the last opportunities to forge a real, emotional “we care” message with consumers. Consider NetFlix’s recent decision to shift attention on service inquiries from ostensibly more efficient e-mail for to live, toll-free calls. Intimacy matters.

Brands should aggressively think about how to leverage interactive capabilities and platforms, especially video, to drive deeper emotional connections and trust with consumers. Tough situations are a good place to start. Here are a couple of opportunities:

  • Video response within site search results. Brands have a long way to go in shoring up basic site search, but one opportunity is to use video-based responses against the query. If a consumer types in “ford safety,” the results page should link directly to a trusted voice from the brand walking through the company’s commitment to safety. It doesn’t need to be the CEO; it could be the product manager or some other trust figure.
  • FAQ databases. Similarly, FAQ databases should make better use of video responses. Right now, virtually all FAQ databases on corporate sites are grounded in text.
  • Feedback forms. Should every feedback form or “contact us” link have a video of the head of customer relations talking about how sincere she is about getting the forms back? Think about how the Kashi brand conveys a “we’re listening” mindset.
  • External search. If consumers type in a directionally negative term on the major search engines, brands should buy text ads that link directly to a video response.
  • Of course, if the content or gesture doesn’t appear real or authentic, you won’t get anywhere. But if you do have something important to say, clarify, or defend, go for the highest return vehicle.

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    Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.