Scare stories have turned consumers into neurotics. But, says Alan Mitchell, a company is advised to adopt an honest approach to ride the storm of bad publicity.
Forget road rage. Brand rage is what companies need to worry about.
It has long been known that large gaps can open up between a product's real risks and human beings' perceptions of them. But now a potent combination of consumer irrationality and media hype is threatening to get out of hand.
Two examples illustrate the problem. Intel's Pentium chip was the most thoroughly tested microprocessor ever. But it did have one tiny flaw.
If certain rare numbers were multiplied the chip produced an error between the 9th and the 19th decimal place. A normal commercial user would hit that error once in every 27,000 years, Intel calculated. No matter. Intel chief executive Andy Groves was forced into a humiliating public apology and a product recall that cost the company $400 million.
Persil Power was another victim. Its new ingredient, the Accelerator, damaged certain fabrics coloured with certain dyes if washed at higher than normal temperatures. The damage wasn't visible to the naked eye.
In fact, as part of its prelaunch testing, Persil's maker Lever sold the product blind under another brand name in one European country for six months. 'We wanted to see if there were any negatives,' explained Andrew Seth, who was managing director of Lever UK at the time. 'All we got was a few observations of improvements.' Yet, when Lever's rival Procter and Gamble issued pictures of rotting clothes Seth, like Groves at Intel, was forced into a humiliating and expensive retreat. The gap between fact and fiction is now becoming a 'nightmare' for companies, says Mike Seymour, director of crisis management for PR firm Burson Marsteller and the man who handled a recall for Heineken (17 million bottles in 152 markets).
Intel, Persil Power, Shell's humbling at the hands of Greenpeace, the Government's crisis over BSE - they're all a product of a decade of scare stories that have turned consumers into neurotics, suggests Quentin Bell of the Quentin Bell Organisation. 'We can't have sex for fear of Aids, we can't eat beef for fear of CJD, and we can't use mobile phones for fear of getting our brains scrambled,' he notes. 'The nervousness is affecting brands.'
Consumers are also clearly getting more shirty. A recent study by advertising agency GGT found that, relative to five years ago, two-thirds of the populace are more likely to take action - up to and including disobeying laws - against a company which they believe has behaved badly. Campaigning groups like Greenpeace are expert at tapping such trends, says its director of campaigns, Chris Rose. Greenpeace's publicity-generating protest stunts capture 'the media's attention and become a sort of "lightning conductor" that "blows a fuse in traditional power structures",' he says.
How can companies cope with, and prevent, brand rage? If there's a problem don't try and hide it. Be open and honest. If you've goofed, admit it.
And act fast. Explain the facts as you see them. Then quickly move the agenda on to focus on what you're doing to put things right. If you're lucky, you can emerge from a potential disaster with your reputation enhanced.
Even if a product recall dents your earnings in the short term, things will soon get back to normal.
Take the case of Heineken. When it discovered a bottling fault had left shards of glass in bottles of beer, it teetered on the brink of brand calamity. But it followed the formula and the crisis passed within days.
Another emerging lesson is that it is wrong to see the issues in terms of 'the facts' versus emotions. 'Throwing science' at the problem is usually counterproductive, notes Tim Sutton, chief executive at Charles Barker PR. Science is rarely black and white and the media is now adept at revealing contradictory scientific opinions. Besides, technical argument fails to address the fundamental intuition behind the outrage. The big battle, suggests Sutton, is not between facts and emotions but between facts and values - the sense, for example, that the organisation hasn't been as honest or humble as it should have been. These are 'fundamental intuitions', says Sutton. 'And you can't argue with them.'
A final lesson is the importance of building a good reputation for dealing with the problems of brand rage. As their faith in traditional sources of authority declines the big issue for consumers is 'who can I trust?' 'PR is not a quick fix,' comments Bell. 'If you're a brand with a lot in the trust deposit account, you can draw upon it.' But, he warns, the powerful forces behind brand rage means that in the coming years 'there's no doubt, more people are going to get unjustifiably stuffed'.