Marketing Minute: How to handle a brand backlash – June 2023

By Paul Friederichsen

As marketers, we want our brands to be loved, admired and purchased. Everything we do is aimed at selling more goods to more people more often. But sometimes, even the great brands miscalculate, underestimate or become too ambitious. What seemed like the next big idea becomes the next big dud, then your loyal customer turns on you and takes their business somewhere else. That coveted relationship, that impressive sales volume, that enviable marketshare starts to crumble right in front of you.

Until recently, the most infamous of these backlashes was Coca-Cola changing the formula of its flagship product in April 1985. Its rival, Pepsi, was threatening Coke’s number one position, starting with the Pepsi Taste Challenge campaign launched ten years earlier. “New Coke,” with a sweeter, more Pepsi-like taste, was met with the instant backlash of public outcry, boycotts and even support groups formed by disgruntled fans. For almost 40 years, the New Coke debacle has served as a model for the awesome power of brand loyalty and the importance of understanding consumer preferences.

In the meantime, other brands have had their share of troubles, all of which were self-inflicted, unforced errors: The Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal in 2015. Chipotle Mexican Grill’s E. coli outbreak in 2015. The Samsung Galaxy battery recall in 2016. United Airlines’ involuntary passenger removal in 2017. MyPillow boycotts due to outspoken conservative politics in 2020. The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in February 2023.

The latest high-profile backlash involves Budweiser and transgender social media celebrity Dylan Mulvaney, who has over ten million loyal followers. No doubt, Bud Light marketers saw tapping into that as a big idea, a brilliant strategic maneuver to grow the brand’s appeal-especially to a younger audience. However, the venture seemed to prove that their loyal Bud Light customers were not as open minded as they thought. It was a miscalculation of epic proportions, with anger and outrage amplified by the very media they intended to use for the brand’s marketing advantage. It is similar in backlash ferocity to the New Coke debacle but stimulated by a different decision: choice of media.

We may never know why or how the number one beer brand decided to employ Mulvaney for promotion of its products, but we do know the consequences. According to news reports, in the first three weeks of April, U.S. sales of Bud Light dropped the equivalent of 1% of the company’s overall global volume for that period. For the week ending April 22, Bud Light sales in retail stores fell 21.4% compared to a year ago, whereas rival brands Coors Light and Miller Lite each saw their sales grow by about 21%, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by Bump Williams Consulting.

Was the risk of hiring Mulvaney to endorse Bud Light worth it? If you ask Anheuser-Busch management and shareholders, the answer would be no. Is the damage permanent? No again. Consumers have short memories, and eventually most will come back around and give the brand a second chance. But there are lessons to be learned from these examples for any floorcovering brand management, large or small.

Prevention is worth a pound of cure: Always remember, your customer is the true owner of your brand. That’s because the true purpose of companies is to make more customers. To facilitate that process, the company identifies itself and its product or service as a unique and desirable experience. In essence, that becomes the brand people want to own. Backlashes occur when brands forget that, disregarding the importance of customers’ ownership role. That invariably leads to a loss of trust in the brand and subsequent replacement by a competitor.

Marketers are just people, too: As Derrick Daye of the brand consultancy The Blake Project is fond of saying, brand development is too important to be left up to just the marketers. That means everyone in the organization, from the top down, needs to participate in defining the brand: its mission, vision, values, promise, essence, customer journey, culture and story. Internal marketing is just as important as external marketing, so that the meaning of the brand is clearly understood and unmistakable. Circumstances that result in customer backlash-whether it be insensitivity to customers’ values, changing formulations, cheating standards or cutting corners-are usually the result of forgetting what the brand stands for and what the customers have come to expect.

Brand causes should authentically reflect customer values: There is a growing wariness among consumers of businesses’ attempts at supporting causes. For example, Disney, MyPillow and Bud Light have trodden dangerously close to controversial political and social issues that have been polarizing. Backlash can occur when consumers perceive company support of a cause as inconsistent with its core business practices or the customer’s own belief system. This can lead to accusations of “virtue signaling” or “woke-washing.” Once again, the bond built on trust between brand and customer is broken, sometimes irrevocably.

Arrogance can be expensive: Marketing creatives are always striving for the next big idea to gain attention for the brand and themselves. That is not bad. But in an effort to be daring or different, it can also take you over a cliff. Management must stay involved and engaged. In the case of Bud Light, one must wonder if the decisions that led to the backlash were reviewed at all. Brands must be a beacon in the marketplace, not just more noise. They must stand out in the morass of competing claims to its best customer profile.

Over the years, the flooring industry has been criticized for not being marketing-savvy or sophisticated. That’s changing rapidly. The industry has become more competitive as the stakes have grown higher. There hasn’t been a major scandal since 2015, when Lumber Liquidators was exposed for some of its flooring having dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. But backlashes need not be high profile to be damaging. The loss of a major customer or contract is likely a backlash to a failure of your brand delivering on its promise of quality, service, delivery, price and more.

As we’ve examined, most backlashes are the result of good intentions but poor judgement. While mistakes and missteps are inevitable, every flooring manufacturing company, distributor, retail chain or contractor should always be reminding their teams what their brand stands for and who their customer is.

The difference between a quick recovery and permanent loss is how you handle it. Here are six steps you should follow in the face of bad publicity resulting from a backlash:
• Act quickly: When bad publicity arises, it’s important to act quickly to address the situation. Delaying a response can make the situation worse and lead to further damage to the brand’s reputation.
• Assess the situation: Before responding, it’s important to assess the situation to determine the severity of the crisis and the potential impact on stakeholders. This will help determine the appropriate response and allocate resources accordingly.
• Communicate openly and honestly: Clear and honest communication is essential in any crisis situation, especially when dealing with bad publicity. The brand should acknowledge the issue, provide accurate information, and show empathy for those affected.
• Take responsibility and apologize: If the brand is at fault for the bad publicity, it’s important to take responsibility and offer a sincere apology. This can help rebuild trust and demonstrate a commitment to addressing the issue.
• Develop a plan for addressing the issue: After acknowledging the issue and apologizing, the brand should develop a plan for addressing the issue and preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future. This may involve implementing new policies and procedures, providing additional training to employees or making other changes.
• Monitor the situation: After responding to the crisis, it’s important to monitor the situation to ensure that the issue is fully resolved and to address any new concerns or issues that arise.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

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