It is every PRO's worst nightmare. After years of creative campaigns, key messages and careful associations, a brand's reputation can be damaged by something totally out of its control.
Two weeks ago, Lacoste reportedly asked Norwegian police to prevent mass murderer Anders Breivik from wearing its brand in court. Meanwhile, as the riots flared across the UK last month, brands including JD Sports, Currys and Adidas found themselves in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
BlackBerry, in particular, came under media scrutiny, as a result of its private messenger service being used to arrange rioting. Indeed, PRWeek/OnePoll's recent survey of 2,000 members of the public found that 28 per cent of people associated BlackBerry with the riots, compared with only 13 per cent for the much-looted JD Sports.
MHP Communications' deputy head of brands Jo Slatem says brands can be a victim of their own success: 'The more mainstream a brand becomes, the more likely it is to get dragged into these things.' This may be of no comfort to the PRO wondering how to tackle the issue.
And the route out is a tricky one. Simply trying to distance a brand from certain groups can backfire. In 2006, for example, Cristal was increasingly becoming the hip hop artist's champagne of choice. During an interview with The Economist, Frederic Rouzaud, MD of Cristal producer Louise Roederer, was asked whether the 'bling lifestyle' association was detrimental to the brand. Rouzaud answered: 'That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it.' High-profile rapper Jay-Z took offence and released a statement to say he would never drink Cristal, stock it in his bars, or promote it through his various brands again.
Restoring a brand requires a more sophisticated and long-term approach. Here, we look at the PR strategies of brands who have found themselves tarnished with negative associations, and get expert opinion on what brands can do to turn things around.
DISROBED - Abercrombie & Fitch
Youth clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch focuses on its in-store experience, rejecting advertising and product placement and refusing to send celebrities free merchandise. Michael Sorrentino of reality TV show Jersey Shore - known for the bad behaviour of its characters - was frequently filmed wearing A&F clothes.
A&F released a statement on its website offering to pay the characters not to wear its clothes on the show. It read: 'We are deeply concerned that Mr Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.'
The response was widely reported, but PROs were split over its effectiveness. Porter Novelli's EMEA head of corporate Alex Woolfall says it was not clear whether the response was a joke. 'You have to have a personality to do humour well, and I wonder whether A&F has established enough of a sense of humour to carry this off. If it's being done seriously, then the response draws attention to what you don't want people to see,' he says. But he adds that humour is often an underused tactic for brands facing an issue. Insignia's director Jonathan Hemus, however, takes the opposite view: 'It's a brilliant PR move. The company has not sat back and let the issue affect it, but has turned it into an opportunity to make a powerful statement about how it wants to be perceived.'
BACK IN THE BLACK - Stella Artois
One of AB InBev's beer brands became associated in the UK with aggressive, drunk men and was nicknamed 'wife-beater'.
The beer brand dropped the word Stella from its ads and to counter its association with drunk behaviour, launched Stella 4%, a brand of beer with a lower alcohol content. Last year, it also launched Stella Artois Black, positioned as a drink for an older audience for low-key nights in the pub. It also promoted its heritage and provenance.
Hemus says that PROs need to differentiate between a brand getting caught up in a wider issue and one that is becoming a direct threat to a brand's reputation. 'People were starting to link Stella with antisocial behaviour. This was a specific risk to Stella's brand that it needed to deal with. Whereas BlackBerry is part of a much bigger crisis - rioting. It is a significant but isolated incident, so it is not yet a threat to the firm's reputation,' he says.
HATS OFF - Burberry
In 2004, the luxury designer's iconic check pattern became increasingly associated with 'chavs' and football hooligans in the UK. Pubs, clubs and taxi drivers started to ban customers wearing it. The defining moment was when ex-soap star Daniella Westbrook and her daughter were photographed in head-to-toe Burberry check.
Burberry cracked down on counterfeit products using the check pattern and discontinued its check baseball caps. It found additional lines to promote, such as quilting, and focused on global sales.
Don't panic. The issue was isolated to the UK market, a small percentage of Burberry's total sales, and the brand has bounced back. 'Burberry had a low key response, which was very effective. It quietly cut product lines,' says Woolfall. Slatem agrees: 'Both Stella and Burberry took a similar approach. They did not reiterate the association. Instead they looked at different qualities they could talk about.' She adds that rather than fuelling the debate, PROs in these brands should take a step back and start a conversation on their own terms. 'Think, what can we say that may surprise people, or contradict the current association? It's a long-term strategy and you have to show that the brand has gone on a journey,' she says.
ANTISOCIAL MEDIA - BlackBerry
How damaging were the riots to BlackBerry's reputation?
Jonathan Hemus, Director, Insignia
"Right-minded people will see BlackBerry Messenger as simply a channel and not a cause of social unrest. It is an unhelpful short-term association but it is not likely to affect its long-term strategy. BlackBerry is now vulnerable to the risks associated with the mainstream consumer marketplace. As brands and organisations enter new markets and employ fresh marketing initiatives, it is vital that the risk assessment evolves to include the new risks."
How well did BlackBerry respond to being put under the media spotlight?
Jo Slatem, Deputy head of brands, MHP
"BlackBerry responded immediately, saying it was liaising with the police. People want dramatic action and it is easy to attack corporate brands, but it did not overreact.
It kept an open dialogue, which was good because it looked responsible. Brands should not overreact because it can look like they are admitting guilt. I worked for McDonald's when the Super Size Me film came out and we were really careful not to do the film's PR for them."
What can BlackBerry do now to manage its reputation?
Alex Woolfall, Corp head, EMEA, Porter Novelli
"BlackBerry was dragged into a debate about the technology at the heart of the story. There's a crisis management tool called exposing your dilemma. As BlackBerry, you have a technology that enables comms with no trace or record. Explain to people that it has been used for good purposes in protecting people against oppressive regimes, but equally can be used for other purposes, so you have a dilemma. You can't be beaten to death because you own the technology."
REBUILDING REPUTATION: FIVE TOP TIPS
1. Properly assess the brand damage
Is the negative association really eroding your brand equity, sales and business, or just offending your sensibility? 'You need to be clear about where your money is coming from. You don't want to turn your nose up at customers,' says Woolfall.
2. Proceed with caution
Telling people they can't use your brand can be seen as offensive, or can bring attention to the thing with which you wish to disassociate yourself.
3. Be prepared
Think about what a brand enables. BlackBerry knew its messenger service allowed traceless comms. Brands need to do thorough risk assessments to build up defences in advance. 'Many organisations do conventional risk assessment - fire, flood, terrorism - but they do not look at the more people-based risks. Look at your firm as if you were an outsider that wanted to do it damage (an aggrieved ex-employee, pressure group or investigative journalist),' says Hemus.
4. Do not overreact
It may look like you are accepting blame. Also, look for positives. 'I wouldn't be surprised if BlackBerry's PR team was pleased if there's a perception that its phones are cheaper and have better functionality than rivals. In a way, it raises awareness of the brand, and promotes the security of the service,' says Woolfall.
5. Be consistent
Slatem says to remember that consumers take much longer to take in messages about a brand than people working in the firm do. 'It takes three to five years to change an association. Brands don't change overnight. You need to stick with the message,' she says.