Let’s face it; the corporate world is no stranger to catastrophic fallout resulting from scandal, poor sales, dud products, or a simple lack of competitive edge.
But when the chips are down and the odds stacked against a business, the nature of the response is entirely up to that business to decide on. The choice needs to be taken very carefully, because one wrong move at this point could prove fatal, if reputation issues are already bad enough.
Apple, the planet’s most valuable brand in 2017 and one of the bona fide leaders in the tech sector, provides one of the best examples of a reputation recovery. Ever. Steve Jobs may have ended up on top of the CEO pile, with a posthumous movie made in his honour, but he wasn’t always the big man on campus at Mac HQ. Having co-founded the computer specialist he would leave due to disagreements with board members in 1985.
The iconic Macintosh model had been introduced to the world with a fanfare 12 months earlier through an advertising campaign pegged on the idea that 1984 doesn’t have to be an Orwellian, but instead a new age of individuality in tech. But the cost of these machines was prohibitive, especially in an age when PCs were not yet mainstream in terms of demand.
The company managed to retain its place as the second most popular manufacturer of computers during the next decade, but by the mid-90s Apple faced bankruptcy. Falling prices of rivals meant that few people could afford to buy, and software developers, especially in the video games field, knew this only too well. The resulting fastest growing media market was increasingly leaving Mac users out in the cold. A reputation was emerging that placed Apple not just as an overpriced company, but also under-supported by the wider industry.
Skip forward to today and that ailing, highly-specialised brand name has become much more mainstream. All of which begs the question, how did this reputation recovery happen? Put simply, it was through a process of realigning the brand with its core values – a human-first approach to product design, i.e. their products are relatively easy to use without much technical knowledge.
Sticking with the current era, Uber, the ride share giant, is currently experiencing a major reputation crisis which is very different to that of the Apple example. In this case, ethical standards, rather than being too niche, have led to such issues arising. The response so far has been swift and fairly decisive, though, namely drafting in Dara Khosrowshahi as new CEO, who immediately apologised for any past wrongdoings on behalf of the firm, published a public declaration of new ‘cultural norms’ at the company, and has been vocal in the need for a move towards becoming ‘customer obsessed’ and valuing ‘ideas of hierarchy’ – pleasing both staff and the public. In the three months since his appointment, headlines concerning said steps have largely been favourable.
Old Spice provides another case in point, and again the context is very different. By the millennium, the men’s grooming range had been written off as a relic from a bygone era, its products more associated with your dad (or grandad’s) dusty bathroom shelf than a fresh and youthful household name. In order to survive it needed a complete rethink, and this came from a full service integrated advertising agency called Wieden+Kennedy.
By creating a now-world famous series of adverts that put a vibrant, punchy, energetic strain of comedy at the fore, not to mention a direct attempt to target the women in men’s lives, rather than the men directly, a new generation stood up and took notice, resuscitating sales and giving the brand a much needed reputation overhaul. This is still regarded as one of the great advertising miracles of the 21st Century, saving a heritage company by turning it into a young challenger firm again.
The list of firms that have managed to turn themselves around could go on for longer, although it is far shorter than a rundown of firms that haven’t enjoyed such success, and instead went quietly into that dark night. No attempt to provide an overview on the subject would be complete without Nintendo, though, which dominated the home console market during the 1980s thanks to its GameBoy and NES products.
The SNES, which replaced the latter, rolled out in 1990, but within half a decade, Sony’s era-defining PlayStation had been unveiled, ushering in a new age for video game giants, with Microsoft’s XBOX arriving in tandem with the PlayStation 2 during the early-2000s, all but killing off Nintendo’s hopes of clawing back the market share it had lost by then.
For a while, the firm was seen as old hack, and lacking the technical prowess to compete with the big guns. The N64, for example, released in 1996, had relied on cartridges for its games, an outdated format up against CD-ROM, meaning that while the ’64 was popular, it didn’t position the company as future proof.
What happened next was even worse, with the GameCube almost sealing Nintendo’s fate. The first of its machines to use a CD, it was less powerful than both Sony and Microsoft’s established alternatives, despite hitting stores further down the lines, and had fewer high profile game licenses. Ultimately, it raised the question ‘what’s the point’, not to mention ‘how long will Nintendo last now?’
Over the coming years this apparently inevitable decline was put into reverse thanks to a string of new machines that were not concerned with direct competition with PlayStation or XBox, but instead offering something truly unique. The Wii, for example, revolutionised the joypad-player relationship, and even resulted in similar ‘control it with your body’ add-ons being introduced by Sony and Microsoft. Suddenly they were trying to get a slice of a pie Nintendo had created for itself from nothing, through real innovation – a cornerstone of the company in its 1980s heyday.
So what can we learn from all this within the context of how brands can overcome negative reputations? For one thing, when scandal rears it’s head – which has been the case with Uber’s ethical issues – transparency and apologies should be the first point of call. Follow that with a serious attempt to show willingness to change. Time will tell if it proves enough for that specific company, of course. Secondly, a re-assessment of what made the firm so successful in the first place might be required, which is what Apple and Nintendo did.
Failing that, Old Spice shows us that a complete repositioning may be the best idea when the core brand name has lost its value altogether. And, what all four tell us is that there is no panacea, nor a quick fix or definite answer. Businesses must learn how to self-analyse and objectively judge their failings to create a bespoke solution that fits its own specific size and shape, rather than attempting to follow anyone else’s footsteps.