It wasn’t a great move for Pepsi to attempt to capitalise on the legitimate protest movement that bears resemblance to #BlackLivesMatter in an advertising campaign. (Have you seen it? Take a look here.) And that move, which involved model Kendall Jenner, was called out so swiftly and angrily that it was enough to have Pepsi pull the plug on the whole campaign just a day after it was released, costing the company quite a bit of cred, not to mention a whole lot of money.
Pepsi is the perfect example of the fact that regardless of your size, it can be hard to imagine how you could ever rebuild the trust of your customers in the immediate aftermath of a PR disaster. Just ask Samsung (no-one is likely to forget their exploding Galaxy Note 7s) or Volkswagen (emissions scandal, anyone?). The recent exposure of Uber’s sexual harassment issues hasn’t been great for the company, either – competitor Lyft rolled out in 54 new cities following widespread unpopularity with the start-up darling.
But it’s not just the household names that are at the mercy of their reputation. Brooklyn-based founders Rich and Michael Mast of Mast Brothers chocolate came under fire in 2015 for advertising their beautifully wrapped bars of chocolate as artisan when, in reality, they actually weren’t. Despite maintaining that they have always been a “bean to bar” chocolatier, rumours continue to persist that they were at one stage melting down chocolate from another supplier and reselling it.
“Tiger Woods recovered to get back in the big time. Volkswagen still sells lots of cars. Coca Cola listened to its customers and returned to its classic recipe. But it is always much, much harder to win back trust once you have lost it.”
Apologise if you mean it
Although Rich and Michael Mast handled the fallout by fiercely denying these claims, it’s a risky manoeuvre. “My clear advice if you want to rebuild the trust of your customers after a big mistake or a full-on corporate misdemeanour is to first work out if you really do mean sorry,” advises Rebecca Battman, Head of Brand, rbl agency. “If you do, then come say sorry properly, explain exactly what happened and be wholly honest. No half measures. Take the initiative and get the facts out, because there’s nothing worse than having to admit to more wrong-doing further down the line. The truth will always get out.”
Present a plan of action
Following your apology, you will then need to present a clear plan of action to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. “If individuals were at fault, they need to face some consequences. At different levels, that might mean dismissal, departure, demotion, reassignment or retraining. Then you may need to think about changing the culture that allowed the malpractice to happen in the first place. And, finally, put in place some checks and balances to ensure there can be no recurrence.”
Honesty can rebuild your name
OK, so you’ve apologised, introduced measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again and those responsible have faced consequences. But can a brand ever fully recover? “Yes, if they are open and honest,” maintains Rebecca. “Tiger Woods recovered to get back in the big time. Volkswagen still sells lots of cars. Coca Cola listened to its customers and returned to its classic recipe. But it is always much, much harder to win back trust once you have lost it.”
Of course, sometimes it really can be game over. “Will Lance Armstrong ever be believed again?” poses Rebecca. “Rupert Murdoch could see what an uphill struggle it would be to recover trust in the News of the World after the UK phone-hacking scandal, so he closed the whole newspaper down.” While the News of The World closure was effective damage limitation in an extreme situation, all brands need to be held to the same standard. “When the misdemeanour is so large, and no apology will do, then look at closing down the business and learning the most important lesson of all: brands are built on trust.”