Dominic Fitzsimmons
Sep 18, 2008

Live Issue... Can brands earn mileage from a unified crisis response?

Joining forces in times of trouble may mean that brands run the risk of diluting their message.

Live Issue... Can brands earn mileage from a unified crisis response?
In an environment where brands are being attacked with increasing frequency, it may be wise to assume that there is safety in numbers.

At the Beijing Olympics, for example, it is believed that some sponsors (GE, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson) made initial attempts to harmonise their responses to some of the Tibet-fuelled PR issues. A fully-fledged group response proved unnecessary. But it is not hard to see how crisis response might be better served through teamwork. But can competitors ever act as a team?

Oil and mining companies in the US have recently rolled out campaigns to address environmental criticism. In Asia, arch-rivals Coke and Pepsi successfully defused a water-contamination crisis in India with one message.

“Industry reputations are now under fire and when competitors work together, there is a greater chance that raw news, misinformation and rumours can be controlled from one centralised source,” explains Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist with Weber Shandwick.

Others are more cynical, pointing out that fear is the main motivator. “The only time [brands] work as a team is when they are under attack or facing a fundamental issue,” says Rob Campbell, managing partner of M&C Saatchi creative planning consultancy Sunshine. “It is fear that they are not going to be able to maintain their profit or the growth the stock market requires. A company’s goal is to get an unfair share of the prospective business, but when it is under attack or facing problems as part of an industry, its goal is just to get its fair share of the abuse.”

Gaines-Ross adds that the primary benefit of competitor collaboration is “spreading the risk”.

“Competitors working together can inform various constituencies in a manner that is less self-serving than if they tried on their own.” However, she warns that the approach is not without drawbacks. “An industry coalition can draw further ire from critics, NGOs and activists because they realise they need to attack more strongly.”

But maybe some rivalries are too bitter to bridge; the release of the film Supersize Me should have offered the fast-food industry a chance to unite. Instead, McDonald’s was left to plough a lone furrow. Adidas and its peers, meanwhile, have been only too happy to let Nike bear the brunt of NGO ire over labour practices in the developing world.

“It is an unnatural state for them to walk hand-in-hand with their enemies. After a certain period of time the normal fighter comes out and they look for ways that they can exploit their own individual advantage,” explains Campbell, pointing out that, after the tobacco industry stood together to face legal action in the US, it was not long before Phillip Morris broke ranks to demand health warnings on packs. The decision to unite often comes from a senior level and is very rarely a marketing decision. “This tends to be because marketers are wired for ways to maximise their own personal advantage whereas a CEO is there to work in the best interests of the company,” says Campbell.

“The risk is that it appears there is something stage-managed about it,” says another source about Olympics sponsor collaboration. “About four or five months ago a few of the statements responding to criticism of the Olympics were looking a bit similar.”

Too much consensus can, furthermore, dilute a strong brand position or competitive edge.

“While it is not a natural occurrence, it can be very beneficial, but not in the way of traditional marketing,” adds Campbell.

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Campaign China

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