By Gregg Lipman:
The other day I was driving in my car, gas gauge edging toward empty, when I realized that the only station available to me was one owned by BP. My heart sank; how could I possibly patronize the oil giant in the midst of the relentless Gulf of Mexico oil spill? So I decided to drive past the BP station in the hope that I would find another station before running out of gas. Fortunately I did, and I filled my tank — and satisfied my conscience — with the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to go against my values.
I have a tendency to hold grudges against wrongdoing companies, and my BP experience got me thinking about other companies that have provoked grudges in consumers over the years. Perhaps the most obvious example of this behavior comes in the form of automobile purchases. A Jewish friend still refuses to buy a Mercedes-Benz, due to the fact that the German company was rumored to use imprisoned Jews for labor during World War II; similarly, there are Americans who will not buy Japanese cars due to Pearl Harbor.
And Toyota’s recent recalls over accelerator pedal problems has cost its brand image dearly; it has fallen like a rock in the eyes of consumers, plunging from sixth place in the 2009 J.D. Power & Associates Quality Study all the way down to 21st (out of 33 brands). (According to The New York Times, every major automotive company with the exception of Toyota reported increases in car sales of at least 17.5% in May; Toyota’s was a paltry 6.7%.)
Of course, grudges are not limited to the automotive industry. Many people refused to shop at Wal-Mart after its “cameo” in “Bowling for Columbine,” which exposed the fact that one of the Columbine killers used his father’s gun, purchased at Wal-Mart, to claim innocent children’s lives.
Another popular company, Nike, fell out of favor with the public in the 1990s when it was exposed for using child labor in its Southeast Asian factories and for mistreatment of female workers.
And most recently, McNeil Consumer Healthcare’s voluntary recall of children’s and infants’ liquid products (including Tylenol, Advil and Motrin) has incurred the wrath of millions of parents across the country; nearly two months later, it has yet to start reproducing these products, forcing parents to resort to using generic drugstore brands (although it was rumored that even these were made in the McNeil factories).
The bad news for wrongdoing companies is that since grudge-holding is so personal, it’s extremely difficult to change the minds of those who have turned against you. The good news is, as with grudges in relationships, there is often a statute of limitations; for example, Nike’s problems in the Nineties are no longer severely impacting sales the way they once did.
However, for those unwilling to wait it out (especially since there is no guarantee that people will forgive and forget), I suggest that brands be proactive in acknowledging mistakes and winning back the hearts and minds of consumers. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Have a consistent and constant focus on building up goodwill and brand equity so that people will find it easier to forgive and forget when things go wrong (if not just simply give you the benefit of the doubt).
2. Fix mistakes quickly and assertively. Don’t wait for people to show up with picket signs in front of your stores. Over-correcting a problem will let consumers know that you care about them; for example, Toyota has expanded and extended its offers such as no-interest financing to win customers back.
3. Take control of your story instead of letting the media, consumer advocacy groups or your competitors do it for you. We have seen how poor judgment in this regard has only further hurt BP, so be sure to use advertising, marketing and public relations dollars wisely and effectively.
Of course, the most obvious piece of advice I can offer is this: Don’t commit the crimes in the first place! Unfortunately, for many of the brands referenced above, it’s too late for that — but it’s probably not too late to do a little damage control and make matters a teeny bit better for their brands. I suppose only time will tell if the public is willing to forgive and forget…but for now, I’ll be getting my gas elsewhere, thank you very much.