Rescue remedies

With several high-profile brands struggling with PR disasters, Tom Banks looks at the strategic role design can play in corporate crisis management

Toyota’s high-profile product recall and the airbag defect that forced Honda to call back nearly half a million vehicles worldwide are the latest examples of unfortunate events upsetting brands by undermining core values.

Last month, Toyota announced it would recall up to 1.8 million cars across Europe, including around 220 000 in the UK, following an accelerator problem. Models affected include the best-selling Yaris and Corolla.

Following this it was forced to recall nearly half a million hybrid models, including its flagship Prius model, to fix braking problems. Fellow Japanese car brand Honda was also forced into a recall, due to defective with airbags.

A safety-induced crisis causes obvious problems for a brand like Honda that prides itself on reliability and the promise to deliver ’the power of dreams’. While branding experts say incidents such as these needn’t necessarily lead to a rebrand, designers do have to be aware that their work is part of a wider marketing mix, and can be affected by unforseen product disasters or questionable PR strategies.

Branding group Someone will be taking all this into account in its work for Eurostar. Just days after Design Week reported that Someone had been appointed to create a new identity for Eurostar, the cross-Channel rail operator was hit by breakdowns, backlogs and the inevitable acres of bad press following mechanical failure caused by snow.

Someone director Gary Holt says the consultancy’s branding work may reflect Eurostar’s response to the crisis, but adds that Someone will continue to work from the original project brief as it develops the new identity. ’Eurostar has listened to what went wrong and is acting on it by distributing information and talking to its customers,’ Holt says. He adds, ’The new brand can parallel that in its identity and strategy, but it shouldn’t directly reflect what happened.’

Last week, preceding a report into the incident, Eurostar Traveller Care was compensating customers and writing to them to say, ’We hope this unique incident will not permanently tarnish your opinion of Eurostar, although we do understand that it might.’

Graham Hales, managing director of Interbrand, describes the snow crisis as ’an act of God’, and says, ’All Eurostar can do is acknowledge the problem and communicate that.’

Hales adds that in ’an immensely apologetic corporate world’ it is unnecessary for brands to be changed in response to crises, unless there is a need for ’a deeper reassurance’.

But it is not just acts of God that can compromise brands; questionable PR strategies often also play their part. Hales refers to Tesco’s decision to bar pyjama-clad customers from a Cardiff store last month. The supermarket giant’s already controversial move was made to look particularly contrary because actor Martin Clunes had appeared in a 2007 Tesco ad, browsing the aisles in his pyjamas.

Hales says, ’People across an organisation like Tesco need to understand the brand, but any groups working outside an organisation like Tesco need just as good an understanding. They’d both see that a pyjama ban is inappropriate.’

James Kydd, non-executive director of Start Creative, cites a PR issue faced by Pepsi. In 1996 the drinks company painted a Concorde blue to match its repackaged all-blue cans. Unfortunately, flight experts claimed this restricted the plane’s speed, as Concorde’s standard white paint dissipated heat generated at high speed on the surface of the plane, allowing it to travel at supersonic speeds for sustained periods of time.

Kydd says, ’You have to think of the PR implications of something like this before it happens.’

He also refers to the Dasani controversy faced by Pepsi’s soft drinks rival Coca-Cola. In 2004 Coke launched its water brand in the UK. However, the media quickly picked up on the fact that Dasani was just treated tap water from Sidcup.

Kydd describes disingenuous branding like this as ’madness’, adding that both consultancy and client ’will always try to show the brand in the best possible light’. He says, ’A misleading strategy to attain three weeks of success is suicide.’

Other branding disasters

  • British Airways’ 1997 tailfin redesign was overseen and implemented by Newell and Sorrell, but was criticised by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who covered a model of a Boeing 747 bearing the design with a handkerchief
  • In 2008 Nike withdrew the Air Stab range from its flagship store in response to bad PR that might have been drawn from rising knife crime in the capital

Latest articles