WHEN THE WHEELS COME OFF — MANAGING A BRAND IN CRISIS
Imagine your brand was hit by a sudden PR crisis, something that could derail the whole business.
How would you respond?
Would you risk it all on a rebrand?
What would you do?
You've been nurturing a quirky and distinctive brand
for 30 years.
And then, overnight, something beyond your control completely changes the way your brand is perceived.
That's what happened to Jimmy Taylor. Since 1983 his cement mixers have carried his brand Jim'll Mix It, playing on Jim'll Fix It, the 1980s children's TV show.
And then, in 2012, it emerged that the eponymous Jim was a serial sexual predator.
Jimmy Taylor hopes to hold on. I'm in concrete, my name's Jim, he says unapologetically.
Panic in the PR department
A brand can be undermined in lots of ways.
It could be a health scare, the recall of a flagship product, an unwanted endorsement, or something nasty in the supply chain (think horsemeat and burgers).
A big company with an established customer base can usually ride out a scandal.
But what if it hits right at the heart of your identity?
That's the predicament that faced Lance Armstrong's cancer charity, Livestrong. It was founded on the back of his recovery from cancer and the remarkable cycling achievements that followed.
The inspirational story of Armstrong beating the odds is central to the charity. His celebrity status was their biggest asset, and the sporting legacy helped attract multi-million dollar sponsorships.
Prepare for impact
So when Lance Armstrong admitted last year that he had cheated using drugs, the Armstrong brand didn't just hit a pothole in the road. It crashed and rolled down the mountain.
Sponsors dropped Armstrong the individual.
But what could 'his' charity do?
Ties that bind
Livestrong scrambled to put some distance between themselves and their founder.
But their name is a play on Armstrong's own. And their bright yellow wristbands are linked to his Tour de France yellow jerseys.
What had been the charity's main strength became its biggest weakness — you can't think of Livestrong without thinking of Lance.
What can be done?
When a crisis hits, the urgent obviously needs to come first — communicating with staff, the media, and customers or supporters.
When the dust start to settle, attention can then turn to strategic issues of brand positioning.
Here, it's important to pause and reflect, then decide, then act from your convictions.
A name change should never be done lightly or in a hurry. Only rarely will it make sense to completely rebrand as the result of a crisis.
A good place to start is with your key audiences.
What has the crisis done to their perceptions of you and your brand?
For Livestrong, this would involve surveying their supporters, learning what the charity means to them beyond the Lance Armstrong connection.
One good question is to ask your audience what they would miss if your organisation ceased to exist. This can give valuable insight into what is (or should be) unique and distinctive for you.
Time to act
Following the listening and research, it will be time for a leadership decision. What, if anything, should we do to rebuild our brand?
If drastic change is needed, then a big bang will usually be a lot more effective than a series of small initiatives. If you're serious about showing that your organisation has changed or moved on, then it's best to be bold.
For Livestrong to get the wheels back on, they need to diversify away from cycling fundraisers and to find new stories and faces. And because the links with Lance are so strong, they must consider changing their name.