Crisis Management: Practical Advice From a Practical Brand’s Missteps

March 1, 2016  |  BVK

Consumer & Retail

One of the most demanding aspects of public relations strategy is crisis management. When something goes wrong, stress levels will skyrocket, timelines invariably shorten and the stakes are high for all involved. Ultimately, the best crisis management plan seeks to avoid crises altogether while simultaneously establishing contingency plans for how to mitigate the associated risks when things go horribly wrong.

For many of our BVK clients, a ‘crisis’ cannot always be avoided. A tropical tourist destination can’t avoid the potential threat of a hurricane, for example. And a sports brand can’t control the public and/or private behavior of its athlete endorsers. But how we manage and deliver information surrounding the circumstances can make all the difference in how quickly a brand can recover from a threat.

However, many crises that threaten the strength of a brand can be avoided altogether. One of the most important aspects of successful crisis management is thorough due diligence. It’s absolutely imperative that endorsement deals, brand partnerships and cause-related sponsorships are carefully scrutinized before they are approved. Before making a decision, a brand should feel comfortable with all the potential answers to one simple question, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

In a recent catalogue campaign, Lands’ End launched the Legend Series, a content series focused on legends “who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large.” Gloria Steinem was chosen as a Lands’ End Legend, pairing a practical and conservative clothing brand with an outspoken feminist, women’s rights advocate and pro-choice political activist. What could possibly go wrong?

In a word: everything.

Here’s an in-depth overview from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, detailing how the situation unfolded.

In practical terms, the Lands’ End + Gloria Steinem example shines a spotlight on 4 practical tenets of brand endorsement strategy:

  1. Know your brand. A brand’s truth is a culmination of years of consumer and employee experience with the organization and its products. A brand should be clear about what it stands for and that perspective should drive organizational decisions, product decisions, and endorser choices based on its true identity and cultural norms. If the company’s brand and culture are unclear or not consistently espoused by all – from the top to the bottom – cultural alignment gaffes can occur, often with dire consequences. Lands’ End’s alignment with another brand, i.e. the endorsement arrangement with Steinem, becomes a direct extension of Lands’ End. It had better be an appropriate fit for both. And if a brand is clear about what it stands for, those alignments are much easier to make – for both the company and its consumers.
  2. Know your audience. Undoubtedly Lands’ End aspires to connect with an expanded consumer audience as a growth strategy. And yet a brand’s core customer base must still factor into the mix. The core audience has relied on the brand for decades for its a) practical and conservative style, its b) private school uniform shop and its c) corporate logo apparel offering. Expanded potential consumer audience aside, which of those three core customer groups was most likely to respond predictably positively to a progressive political activist? The answer: d) none of the above.
  3. There should be no surprises. Ever. Surprises rarely happen unless preparation is fatally flawed. We can be certain that a hurricane may pass through a tropical region at some point and we prepare for its eventuality. And we can anticipate the potential bad behavior of an athlete/celebrity and establish an exit strategy. These are not surprises; they are anticipated possibilities. However in the case of Lands’ End + Steinem, there should have been no surprises whatsoever. She wasn’t suddenly embroiled in a scandal or unexpectedly discovered to be an outspoken activist. Her track record is what defines her. Lands’ End had two options: a) align with Steinem and defend the choice or b) not choose Steinem to begin with. Both options had potential risks and rewards. But neither option is fraught with surprises.
  4. Know your risk tolerance. The best way to manage a crisis is to avoid the crisis in the first place. If any potential outcome scenarios are in conflict with the initial direction, it’s a good sign that the direction is flawed. No matter how you slice it, a high-risk selection for endorsement of a conservative Midwest clothing manufacturer is of questionable strategic value. Presuming crisis scenarios were ever considered, a potential retraction was a distinct possibility, if not an undeniable eventuality. And no one in their right mind would intentionally plan to publicly retract an expensive and high profile endorsement deal, would they?Celebrity endorsements most definitely offer significant opportunities for successful outcomes from brands. BVK has executed a wide variety of such programs for our clients. Success requires expert due diligence and thorough crisis management strategies, along with well-integrated planning and execution. And the good news is that most crises can be anticipated in advance or avoided altogether, ensuring wildly successful outcomes for our clients.

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