N Chandramouli is the CEO of TRA Research.
The one magic mantra for controversies is, ‘Avoid them’. But much as you try, a controversy sometimes has the uncanny ability to locate and target you, as if it were a laser-guided military drone on a search-and-destroy mission.
Before we go into solutions for brand controversies, we must define what a 'brand' is. The word has been so widely overused that its meaning is often lost. We define a brand as a manifestation of an idea, any replicable idea. To give a more relatable interpretation to the term brand, imagine a brand as a living idea--an idea with a soul. The brand is the soul that gives animation to the idea--its non-corporeal essence, its vital-breath or life-force.
Any controversy, big or small, holds the potential to disrupt, distress or destroy this life-force of an organisation, and can have serious consequences for the business. If the product or service is good, regaining customers may be possible over time, but the subtle, yet indelible slander on the brand’s trust is more difficult to regain. Gaining trust is tough enough, but regaining it after losing it is nigh impossible, as heart-break victims would readily corroborate.
Since the first rule of controversies is to avoid them, the concomitant first step is to Anticipate. This involves dealing with serious words such as 'risk assessment', 'threat evaluation' and 'scenario building'. Relevant personnel must be trained with relevant protocols. However, to anticipate, more than preparedness alone, is a direction for the brand towards better self-awareness and environment-awareness. Every brand on this path invariably betters itself.
Participate, the next step, is about vigil and warning. After all, you don’t want to be the last to know about the crisis about to hit your brand. Transparency and approachability are the main brand characteristics that allow a participative approach to vigil, where all stakeholders, internal and external, feel comfortable to escalate matters they consider to be challenges to the brand. The extended organisation can become outspread, with multiple look-out posts for brand threats. However, without a well-oiled mechanism to address raised concerns, the 'Participate' stage can remain sterile and ineffectual.
The third stage, Mitigate, is the direct addressing of the problem, as and when the crisis is happening. If the first two stages are effective, the third step becomes simpler. In this, the first rule is of prioritisation, for, if everything is priority, nothing is priority.
For a business to react effectively to any controversy, it must first understand the potential impact of the problem and prioritise the appropriate response, with the key word being ‘appropriate’. High stress environments inversely impact decision making and blur metastatic site impacts, due to high focus on one core problem. Naturally, the first step is to douse the fire in sight looking at different aspects–financial, perceptual, people, with parallel action on all fronts.
While organisations usually have lawyers and financial experts advising them closely at such times, they unfortunately do not have a brand trust expert protecting the very ‘soul’ of the organisation, the trust held in its brand. The over-cautious advice of lawyers and financial teams, often contrarian to what the brand trust expert would advise, makes necessary a common ground between these opposing forces.
All crises, no matter how potentially harmful, have a significant learning component to them. The last step, Rehabilitate, is a much needed step conducted after the controversy has abated. Lessons learnt get recorded, morbidity and mortality evaluations measure the damage extent and reasons thereof. Many of these learnings, if implemented, can help in making the brand stronger and better.
The true owners of the brand are its consumers, its stakeholders, for a brand is only a manifestation of its perception in their minds. The legal owners of the brand are mere custodians. When stakeholders repose trust in a brand, they willingly accept the vulnerability that comes with it. But if this trust gets broken and the bond remains unrepaired, these brand patrons will not only disown the brand, but may become vocal adversaries of it. The complete onus of bridging this bond lies with the brand, and I conclude with words of caution: Caveat venditor, or 'Seller, beware'.
The author is CEO of TRA Research.