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How to Deal With Crisis—and Defend the Brand

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How companies deal with negative experiences is just as important as creating positive experiences.

In light of the recent pet-food poisoning cases, several companies have taken the lead in reassuring pet owners that they are being proactive in responding to concerns. Brands like Eukanuba, Iams and retailers such as PETCO and PetSmart have endeavored to be proactive in addressing the crisis by pulling product, providing notice information, and updating websites with information about the recall.

Reacting immediately and proactively is not an option: It's the right thing to do from both a humane perspective and from a brand-sustainability perspective.

While Canadian company Menu Foods may have the hardest time surviving the crisis, others may actually enhance customer loyalty based on how they reacted. By all reports, national retailers immediately pulled any questionable Menu Foods products from their shelves and reported to the public that they had done so. P&G took out full-page newspaper ads in 59 markets in order to bolster customers' confidence in its Iams and Eukanuba brands.

With the advantage of a customer database, both PetSmart and PETCO went one step further by sending out emails to all of their customers recapping the situation and reassuring customers. PETCO's email was notable in that it wasn't simply a recap but also a personal and heartfelt letter from CEO Jim Myers, reassuring pet owners about pulling the products, contacting anyone who may have purchased the products, and recommending safe products.


Comparing the first few paragraphs in each of the retailers' emails provides tremendous insight into not only how each reacts in a crisis but also how they differentiate themselves as a brand.

PetSmart email to customers

[Subject Line:] Important Pet Food Recall Information

Dear Valued PetSmart customer:

As you have probably heard, Menu Foods, a national manufacturer of pet foods, issued a voluntary recall of canned and pouched wet dog and cat food manufactured in two of its facilities between December 2006 and March 2007. Again, this is a recall of a specific type of wet pet food made by Menu Foods. Other wet pet foods and all dry pet foods and treats are not impacted by this recall.

Menu Foods initiated the recall after receiving reports that some of its foods may be the cause of reported illnesses and kidney failure in dogs and cats. Menu Foods distributes these products to supermarkets, mass merchandisers and pet specialty stores, including PetSmart®, under a variety of brand names.

Sincerely,
Philip L. Frances
Chairman & CEO, PetSmart, Inc.

PETCO email to customers

[Subject Line:] A Message from our CEO on Pet Foods

Dear Mary [customer's first name inserted],

PETCO cares about Your Pet

Here at PETCO the health and well-being of your pet is our number one priority and we'd like to update you about the recent industry recall of certain WET DOG AND CAT FOOD PRODUCTS.

First, it is important that you know ALL foods affected by the recent Menu Foods recall have been pulled from our stores' shelves and are not being sold online at PETCO.com. For additional information regarding the recalled pet food brands, you can visit the Menu Foods web site [link].

Second, where possible, we are sending notices to anyone who may have purchased recalled products asking that they discontinue feeding their dog or cat these specific canned and pouched wet foods.

Sincerely,

[Signature]

Jim Myers, CEO

The Difference

The difference is striking, for a few reasons. The first email appears to have been driven by attorneys. It is dry, contains legal speak, and is designed to make sure the company is saying the right thing and mentioning Menu Foods four times in the first few sentences.

The second email appears to have been driven by the PR team. It is personal, caring, and talks about the customers, their pets and PETCO. Menu Foods is mentioned only once in the first few sentences. PETCO and the reader's pet are mentioned three times. A very different focus.

Even if someone were not affected by the recall, the fact that PETCO is reinforcing its brand message of "caring about you and your pet," even in a crisis, goes a long way in reassuring pet owners about shopping at the retailer. It becomes an emotional added value to buy your pet food at PETCO, and using your PETCO P.A.L.S. card, instead of just at any discount or grocery store or maybe even at PetSmart.

Another key difference is the tone set by the CEO. The PetSmart letter, while signed by the CEO, does not reference his name until the bottom of the letter.

This gives the impression that this letter was probably written by someone else and they added the CEO's name at the bottom.

The PETCO email is stated to be from the CEO in the subject line. The letter reads like an actual letter and is signed with CEO Jim Myers's actual signature, making it more personal.

While it was likely not the intent of PETCO to engage in an "emotional connection branding strategy" with its customers because of a crisis, it is clear that the mechanisms are in place at the retailer to respond in a way that's consistent with the overall brand message during a crisis. This results in added credibility for the brand.

Being Proactive

Other companies are recognizing the importance of being proactive in the face of negative experiences and are doing so not only to be good corporate citizens but also to build loyalty.

Southwest Airlines recently hired Fred Taylor, Jr. as its Senior Manager of Proactive Customer Communications—or, as the New York Times dubbed him, "Chief Apology Officer." While the appointment may have drawn some snickers in some corporate corners, Southwest has long been recognized as the industry leader in customer service.

This move, while amusing to some, is clearly a proactive step in taking customer service and the customer experience to the next level by providing personally penned letters of apology and free travel vouchers for customers who have had a less-than-satisfying experience.

Both American Airlines and JetBlue are trying to follow suit, but JetBlue in particular seems to have been caught playing catch-up. While known for customer service and loyalty, JetBlue is most certainly overhauling its crisis management plan.

Here are some key strategies in addressing crisis management in a way that enhances and extends the brands relationship with customers:

  • Develop a strategy—Develop a comprehensive strategy to address a crisis in a way that's consistent with what the brand represents. Identify a specific team, plan, practice, revise... and involve the CEO at all steps.

  • Identify roles—Resolve the natural conflict between the legal team and the PR team, upfront. Make sure the teams present a unified message, and resolve differences quickly.

  • Define brand—Having your brand voice clearly defined, upfront, allows crisis management to occur within the same point of view and will therefore make it more believable and effective.

  • Have CEO buy-in—The leader is the brand. The leader leads the charge, sets the tone, and instills confidence in the company for the employees, the media, and the customer. The CEO should be involved in every step of planning and should be prepared to be the spokesperson.

  • Identify weak links—Find out where potential company weaknesses may evolve into a crisis that could hurt the brand's image and identity. Develop a strategy to address it proactively.

  • Get employee buy-in—The employee, especially the frontline employee, should be at the forefront of crisis management on a daily basis. Give such employees the tools and empowerment they need to head off problems before they become crises.

  • Communicate strategically—The key to successful execution and resolution is a clear communication strategy across all channels. When, how, and what you communicate and with whom is the key to maintaining a positive brand perception.

Focusing on the customer experience, in good times and in bad, is the key to surviving the experience economy. Whether it's engaging a Chief Customer Officer, a Chief Apology Officer, or crafting a heartfelt CEO letter, making the customer experience a priority starts at the top for those companies that will enhance their brand—and not only survive, but thrive.


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David Lemley is president of Lemley Design, a retail brand consultancy specializing in creating branded customer experiences. He can be reached at 206-285-6900 or via www.lemleydesign.com.

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