When the Brand Bites Back

How often have I heard, and even doled out, the advice: Build the brand. The brand is what matters. Protect the brand. Well, current events would indicate the brand, though undoubtedly powerful, can work both for and against you. Let’s look at what troubled brands are doing, and what marketers can do to weather such storms.

Our first, and most obvious, example is Martha Stewart. Given that Martha Stewart the person and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. (MSO) are virtually synonymous in people’s minds, the company finds itself in an interesting position in light of Stewart’s well-publicized legal troubles. Even though she is trying to distance herself from the day-to-day running of the company, the stock has been suffering. Sales have been declining because the product brands have had difficulty transcending the negative publicity.

Stewart has been trying to resuscitate her personal brand image by defending herself publicly on a Web site called marthatalks.com. She continues to try to distance herself from the company, but this is a case where the persona as brand and the brand as persona seem to be unable to weather the current storm.

Another example is Philip Morris, which recently rebranded itself and became Altria. Most would see this as an effort to disassociate the parent brand from negative connotations (Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International being the tobacco divisions) and protect other company brands such as Kraft, which encompasses such brands as Oscar Mayer and Post cereals. This rebranding came after several landmark decisions against the tobacco industry and after years of negative press, government sanctions, and low public opinion.

Philip Morris USA meanwhile is using the Web to paint itself as a good corporate citizen, running TV ads to send viewers to the Internet for information about “tobacco issues.” Its site acknowledges the health risks of smoking and includes resources on talking to your kids about it.

Rebranding can also come on the heals of corporate mergers and acquisitions, as was the case with Verizon. Verizon is the result of a merger of two behemoth telecommunications companies, Bell Atlantic and GTE. The motivation for the undertaking was threefold:

  • To build awareness with customers that the two companies had merged

  • To create trust in the brand for being able to deliver quality service
  • To educate and recruit new customers to the service

Since starting this campaign in 2000, Verizon has successfully built its new brand — little or no evidence of its origins remain.

Various branding elements are important here: brand awareness, brand attributes, message association, brand favorability, brand preference, and brand loyalty. Building brand loyalty should be in the forefront of everyone’s mind, whether or not the brand’s in turmoil. When consumers are given so many choices and are bombarded with offers to change brands, loyalty is what will guarantee success.

Case in point, American Airlines. The airline industry is arguably in economic turmoil, and the players should be using everything in their customer satisfaction arsenals. A few weeks back, my family went on vacation, our first adventure with an 11 month old. On the first leg of our six-leg trip, we were delayed at the airport for three hours because of mechanical problems. We survived our initial delay and the other three delays that followed over the next 12 days. A week after arriving home, we received a letter from American apologizing for the three-hour delay. Having repressed the incident to save my sanity, this was a reminder. More important, however, it ensured I would remain loyal to American Airlines, at least for some of my travel.

Which brings me back to Martha. MSO should be doing everything in its power to ensure brand loyalty from all of its audiences — magazine subscribers, TV audiences, and product consumers. It is better to acknowledge the turmoil and pledge continued dedication to quality than to try to ignore the problem. Loyalty is a good thing.

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