King Nut Peanut Butter. Del Monte Cantaloupe. Taco Bell. Chipotle. Blue Bell. What do all of these brands have in common? All are or have been at the center of foodborne illness scares within the past decade. Although food product recalls and warnings are not uncommon, it makes it no less unsettling to wonder whether the food we eat and products we purchase are safe. After all, a crisis among consumer product brands is really not a matter of if it will ever happen, but when it will happen. Warren Buffet was once quoted as saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
The 1982 case of seven people who died after ingesting Tylenol from bottles that had been tampered with and contained cyanide is a landmark case study at the center of most crisis communication coursework. Tylenol’s stock also took a huge nose dive. There were at least 100,000 news stories on the subject. Tylenol pulled nearly 31 million bottles of the product, and all advertising ceased. Yet, the quick-thinking executives at Johnson & Johnson came together to create a crisis management team and provided transparent communication. That, coupled with new triple-seal tamper resistant packaging, brought Tylenol back from almost certain brand death and solidified the customers’ mind the trustworthy nature of Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol.
What can brands like Chipotle and Blue Bell learn from the experience of Tylenol? In April 2015, in the midst of “suspected, but not confirmed” cases of listeria, Blue Bell, launched a voluntary recall of all Blue Bell products. The company also offered all consumers full refunds. Both actions seemed to be steps in the right directions. Unfortunately, it took Blue Bell quite some time to figure out the problem, Michelle Greenwald, marketing professor at Columbia Business School reported. And when time is of the essence, poor communication can sink a ship fast.
As for Chipotle, the verdict is still out about whether their stepped-up advertising campaign and free food giveaways will be enough to get this brand back in the good graces of its consumers. The task may prove to be extra challenging because the company’s long-running slogan has been “food with integrity.” Consumers have come to trust Chipotle after promises of no GMOs and humanely raised pork. The trust is now broken, and experts are saying that recovery of the brand will take more than free food giveaways.
So what are the takeaways from these incidents?
- Admit fault, apologize, then do everything you can to make amends.
- Communicate quickly and with transparency and consistency. Keep your customers apprised of what is going on. Your customers are watching to see how you respond. And in this digital world, you need to be privy to the conversations they are having about you!
- Because crises do happen, it’s essential to hold trainings at least one time a year. Less than 10 percent of companies actually practice their recall or general crisis plans. It’s also necessary to have roles established on the crisis team.
While all crises cannot be avoided, a communication department can and should be ready to respond to any situation that arises.