When good brands fail

Image result for When good brands failHow do consumers respond when their favourite brands get into trouble?

When Jet Airways collapsed and stopped flying recently, one kind of response which stood out was the widespread outpouring of love and affection for the failed airline. Thousands of passengers spontaneously took to social media, to say how much they would miss their favourite airline. Many corporates, including competitor airlines as well as businesses in other industries, offered jobs to employees of Jet. There were even long, soulful blogs written in tribute to the Jet brand, its logo, the customer experience it offered, and a host of related aspects.

What has led to this outpouring of love for Jet Airways, an airline that has now been grounded? And why did we not see a similarly strong emotive response from consumers when other Indian brands got into trouble, such as Kingfisher Airlines or Micromax mobile phones? How do consumers respond when brands get into trouble, and what lessons can this teach us?

Love and affection

If a brand has built a strong emotive connect with consumers, then they will respond with love and affection if that brand gets into trouble. But this will happen only if they believe the brand has generally acted in good faith, has not tried to cheat them, or take undue advantage. Jet had built positive emotive connect with Indian flyers, because it had offered consistently good customer experience, was part of flyers’ lives for over two long decades, and had been a well regarded market leader. Also, despite reports of its failing health over the past year, Jet made every effort to offer good service even during its last few months of flying. Consumers have experienced that, so the residual love and affection is likely to be high, if Jet begins flying again.

Anger and backlash

If a favourite brand lets down its loyal customers and then gets into trouble as well, it will face anger and backlash all the way. The classic example of this is New Coke, a sweeter and smoother beverage that the Coca Cola company introduced in 1985, replacing its original drink. The company believed that it was catering to changing tastes, but loyal consumers of Coke felt that their favourite brand had totally let them down by changing their daily go-to drink without their permission. They reacted with anger and vociferously protested against the new drink, which in their view was tantamount to betrayal. The original Coke was brought back to the market within three months.

A divided house

When a good brand takes a controversial stance on some current topic and gets into trouble, consumers generally tend to take sides, based on what they truly believe in. Recent examples include Gillette’s “We believe” advertising campaign, where the advertisement weighed in on the #metoospace, and Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign with Colin Kaepernick, a former American football player and civil rights activist. Both these were highly polarising, with large numbers of consumers loving the stances taken by the brands, while many others hated the campaigns. However, in both cases, the brands stood by their points of view, and perhaps because of this very reason, they eventually came out stronger.

Lock them up

If a brand that is perceived to be good has got into trouble because it has knowingly defrauded its consumers in any way, then consumers are likely to insist that the brand be punished. We don’t like being cheated by the brands we adopt, and we would like to see those bad people behind bars. Only then will a sense of fairness prevail in our minds. Recent instances in the financial services space in India, such as the IL&FS mismanagement and fraud, where investors have lost heavily, are a case in point. In such cases, the brand generally ends up being brain-dead, with loss of consumer confidence and little chance of recovery.

Indifference

If a brand has little or no emotive connect with its consumers, and gets into trouble because it is unable to withstand competition, or has not read trends correctly, then consumers will generally be indifferent to the fate of these brands, will forget quickly and move on. I think this was the case with both Kingfisher and Micromax, which got into trouble for very different reasons. Millions of consumers did transact with these brands while they were alive and kicking. However, either because the brands were around for a relatively short period (emotive connect takes time to build) or because they did not take care to build any deep connect with consumers, there was little residual emotion.

Forgiveness

If a brand is genuinely loved by consumers, has got into trouble because of product or service failures, but has taken quick remedial steps to correct these mishaps, consumers are likely to forgive it and embrace it once again. Think of Cadbury chocolates, and the worms infestation story of 2003. Cadbury responded splendidly, took full accountability, transformed its packaging, and reassured its consumers through tangible actions, loud and clear. It has grown from strength to strength thereafter. Similarly, think of Samsung and its exploding Note-7 mobiles of 2016. Despite a somewhat delayed initial reaction, the brand eventually handled that crisis well, including identifying and correcting the core issue at hand, as well as extensive product recalls from shelves, despite the huge multi-billion dollar cost involved. Consequently, consumers appear to have forgiven Samsung, which continues to be the largest selling mobile phone worldwide.

I conclude this column with one question which intrigues me. How do consumers respond when a reputed brand provides them products or services of excellent quality and value, but brazenly lets down or defrauds other stakeholders – such as the Government or society, say by evading taxes, cheating on emission norms or violating data privacy rules? What happens then, from a consumer perspective?

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. He acknowledges inputs from Vartika Chaudhary in the writing of this article.

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