The five stages of brand grief (as experienced recently by Pepsi)

On the morning of 7 May 1937, engineers standing around the still-smoldering wreckage of the LZ 129 Hindenburg had a moment of quiet reflection.

Does the public even have any idea how much that celebrity ambassador cost?
Does the public even have any idea how much that celebrity ambassador cost?
With clarity of mind that only hindsight can provide, they considered that perhaps filling a flying vessel with a highly flammable explosive gas probably wasn’t the effective idea they had originally thought. Here we are some 80 years later, dashing about in Ubers and not airships. 

Speaking of things spectacularly crashing and burning; here are the five stages of grief that brands endure when emotive marketing campaigns suffer the same fate.

1. Denial

The team looks at each other. They ask themselves how a positive and emotive message of peace, solidarity and unity (and revenue) can be seen as anything other than Oscar-worthy. The product incorporation was mostly seamless, they tell themselves. Do they have any idea how much that celebrity ambassador cost? They agree the proposition was world-changing. How dare the target market do anything but boost brand equity. The audience is wrong, not the creative. Besides, a few contrarian comments will soon be drowned out by the applause of the award ceremonies.

2. Anger 

The distant roar of fingers hitting keyboards increases in ferocity. Everyone is chronically offended. There is no greater fuel for meme generation than armchair angst. Most of those voicing their disdain haven't actually seen the ad at all, but their influencer of choice didn’t like it, and that somehow makes it worse. The media spy an opportunity for a bit of reactive content and the hot takes rack up the page views. The barriers of owned and paid media have been broken, now the floodgates of earned have opened and a steaming deluge of 'engagement' is flooding the social listening tools.

3. Bargaining 

Hercules had to deal with a many-headed fire-breathing hydra, but he at least had a sword, not a Hootsuite dashboard. Those three immortal words "what if we…" are uttered feebly around the room. The mad scramble to salvage the situation has subsided into resigned silence. They can’t negotiate their way out of this any more than they’ll be able to negotiate the awkward questions in the debriefing. 

4. Depression

A solitary tear rolls down the cheek of the Strategic Head of Brand Evangelism. 

5. Acceptance 

The banner ads are hastily deleted. The groveling apology is posted; a carefully written memorial hastily brushing months’ worth of work under the carpet. Mercifully, the forced sincerity hasn’t been eroded too much by the legal department. With clarity of mind that only hindsight can provide, the team consider that perhaps using a politically charged situation to sell a product probably wasn’t the effective idea they had originally thought.

Next time, like those engineers, they might want to keep the stockpile of volatile materials away from sources of ignition. 

Richard Stagg is a strategist

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