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Brand Sabotage

Written by Ken Gaebler
Published: 7/16/2015

Based on the latest big-brand PR crisis, the fall of Subway's Jared from grace, you might think that the leading causes of brand damage are outside of your control. Not so.

This month's big brand crisis is brought to you by Subway, which is still reeling after its spokesperson Jared Fogle was caught up in a child-porn investigation.

Brand Sabotage

Subway quickly terminated its relationship with Fogle, but it got me thinking about brand crises and how vulnerable brands are.

If you are a marketer, you know that tons of bad things can happen to a brand, and that most are outside of your control. Could Subway ever have anticipated this particular crisis? Probably not.

But I'd argue that most brand crises are preventable. In fact, brands are usually their own worst enemy.

Who Can Kill a Great Brand?

When your friend double-crosses you or treats you poorly, it can ruin your relationship, even if you've been buddies for years, wouldn't you agree?

The same is true of brands. A well-loved brand can become a despised brand in a heartbeat if it betrays a trust that has developed over a long period.

The stark reality is that you are more likely to kill your brand than your competitors are.

They call it "shooting yourself in the foot" or "friendly fire," but the basic idea is that while you're fending off the enemy (your competitors), you may ultimately be the one that does something that ruins your company.

After you've done the dirty deed, if your brand were human, it might look at you and say "Et tu, Brutus?"

OK, I'll admit it. I don't have any research studies to cite or empirical data to back this up, but it seems pretty intuitive to me, don't you think?

Most people don't leave a loved brand because there is a better competitive alternative. They leave a loved brand because the brand stops becoming loveable. Simply put: brand divorce occurs when brand love is gone.

Examples of Brand Sabotage

Let's move from concept to context. Below, we discuss some specific examples of brand sabotage:

  • Netflix - This beloved company lost a lot of brand love a few years ago when they rolled out a price increase that customers hated. Adding insult to injury, they moved to split the business up, which simply increased the brand hate. Yes, they survived, but this could easily have been the end of a beloved brand.
  • Coca-Cola - In 1985, Coke changed its recipe to use a new, high-fructose corn syrup. Immediately, it started to lose market share, forcing Coke to roll back to the old formula. Yes, Coke recovered and, yes, they now have bigger market share than before. Still, this is classic example of brand sabotage from within.
  • Microsoft - Every time Microsoft reboots my computer without any forewarning after Patch Tuesday, my subconscious hate for a brand I once loved grows. Brands don't necessarily lose love in one fell swoop; sometimes it's death by a thousand pin pricks.
  • Lululemon - You'd think this company's rabid fan base would never turn on them, but Lululemon made the mistake of selling what were effectively see-through yoga pants. When the PR crisis hit, the CEO, rather than owning up to the flaw, responded that the unflattering look was caused in part because fat people were buying his products when they shouldn't. High-intensity brand sabotage from within at its best, by the CEO no less.
  • Google - Remember when Google launched Buzz, its social networking service, and forced it down our throats, whether we wanted it or not? The backlash was huge, and Google quickly made Buzz optional. What were they thinking?
  • Tiger Woods - Tiger's brand was amazing until his big scandal, which resulted from his philandering. Interestingly, other brands were piggybacking on Tiger's brand, so there was a ripple effect. Some suggest that as much as $12 billion was lost due to this internal brand sabotage incident.

Empires Fall, and Some Fall Faster Than Others

No matter how strong a brand is, it can die very quickly.

Usually, this comes from marketing myopia -- a belief that you are infallible and that you know best. Firms that don't respect the market, who don't listen well, can crash fast.

Acclaimed business professor Richard Tedlow, who wrote an awesome book called Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face, says "If you deny reality, you're going to pay the price."

A brand can also die slowly, which is more often that case (see my Microsoft example above).

Slow brand deaths are usually the result of screwing up, deeply, in one specific area. For example, if you get terrible customer service when you call a company's call center, that one incident won't kill the brand the next day. But you may not buy their product again.

Since countless others are likely doing the same thing, that brand is dying, albeit slowly, due to the bad service -- and yet that have no clue that they are on a brand death bed.

Play It Safe

But fast or slow, in all the examples I've discussed, the brand damage came from within. Every brand bruise and brand stab stemmed from internal decisions.

We've met the enemy and he is us, as they say.

So, don't fear the competition. Fear yourself.

The little things matter. The big things matter. Be very careful.

Yes, you can survive internal brand sabotage, but a much better strategy is to avoid it altogether.

Warren Buffett, who has an as-yet-unblemished and amazingly strong personal brand, provides sage advice on this topic: "It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.

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