Executive Insider

How To Rebuild Your Brand After A Crisis: 4 Guiding Principles

In the summer of 2019, I sat down with 10 branding executives—each of whom had advised on some of the most high-profile branding crises in modern history. I gathered their inside perspectives on what works to rebuild brand, and uncovered four guiding principles through which brands can evaluate their post-crisis actions.

Last year, brand crises at the top of the news cycle included those facing BoeingWells Fargo, and James Charles. One of my strongest recommendations was solely that brand stewards—whether they be businesses, politicians, individuals, countries or organizations—think about a brand crisis plan. 2020, of course, has brought us wildfire, pandemic, even the spread of Murder Hornets—several crises of global magnitude and human impact that is difficult to comprehend. One business consequence is that the need to refocus, refresh, or rebuild the brand will be a pressing reality for many this year.

From a business perspective, many marketers continue to struggle with the tone, messaging, approach, and focus. The principles outlined in this article are relevant for any brand which plans to be here for the long term.

Purposeful, agile, decisive, and coherent brands thrive through the crisis and afterward. Here is how you might as well.

  1. Align around purpose
    Brands that last stand for something. Though it can be something profound, it doesn’t need to be. Nike stands for perseverance and justice. Ryanair stands for efficiency. There is always a common belief, mission—a purpose—that drives your organization. You and your team need to tap into that now to illuminate the strategies that will serve you best.
    It can seem that younger, smaller, and more action-oriented brands all weather crisis well—and those traits can be helpful—but it is actually what you might call a brand’s ‘propensity to purpose’ that makes its role and recovery in crisis intuitively clear. When a brand knows its purpose, and it is believed and lived throughout the organization, it is well set-up to withstand the crisis.
    Every brand already has a purpose—sometimes it just requires some uncovering. Get your core team together and start the conversation. What unites you? What has been true to your brand from day one, and is still true?
  2. Strive for an agile, focused, considered approach
    One defining characteristic of a brand crisis is that, as a steward of your brand, you did not plan for or want it. In order to effectively counter it, you will be required to demonstrate agility and flexibility. For starters, it is going to break you out of your day-to-day and force you to react.
    A well-prepared brand moves quickly: find the facts; identify options; take action; and effectively and appropriately bring stakeholders along the journey. Unfortunately, these steps rarely occur in a linear fashion, and, like blocks in a building, each is vital for the whole’s success. Typically, the last steps—decision-making, execution, and communication—present the most common areas of difficulty for brands. Brands that do well are brands that invest in preparedness and can achieve focus when they need to. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail,” —a mantra adopted by leaders from Benjamin Franklin to Roy Keane—is one we know to be true in business. Airlines, for example, which are required by regulators to be ready for crises of all kinds, often model good crisis recovery behavior—as they have expertise and a crisis-ready culture in place.
    For your approach to be a considered one, you firstly need to deeply understand the facts and factors of the crisis, and then develop a response which is both appropriate and comprehensive. At the very same time—you need to communicate well with all those interested. Emirates Airline’s handling of an aircraft fire incident in August 2016 is a bright example of strong and effective stakeholder communication, and effective action in the face of crisis.
    Consumers will remember you more based on your response behavior rather than the origins of the crisis itself—that is a brand-building opportunity that crisis represents.
  3. Assert your narrative
    Being an active participant in your own brand narrative is crucial. Language is powerful. The days where a brand could tightly control the narrative through one-way brand-to-consumer channels are largely gone. However, there are many tools available to you to represent yourself fairly and persuasively. The simplest crisis communication advice is this:
    – Overcommunicate rather than under;
    – Own up when you need to own up;
    – Defend yourself respectfully when criticism is unfair.
    History would indicate that there is power in being the first to speak. Subsequent commentators are responding to the narrative you have already set. Rightly or wrongly, the first voice out the gate often retains the most lasting impact. Many observers of the 2020 Democratic Presidential race, for example, did not question that Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa caucus when he declared victory on the night—even though at that point the vote was too close to call. Of course, the enthusiasts who follow the story discerningly parse it out further, but most people just won’t be paying attention—they’ve already made their minds up and moved on. His team made a strategic decision to declare a win and reap the benefits of perception and momentum that would come with that—rather than enable a messier media narrative, after which he would likely not be cast as a decisive victor.
    Consumer culture has never been so receptive to truly transparent and trustworthy communication as it is now. In the mid 00’s, Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss were among celebrities reported to share the classically British advice, “Never complain, never explain” with close associates. Social media has largely subverted the usefulness of such an approach, which at one time might have lent itself to a brand fueled by suggestion, mystery, intrigue, and powerful wall-to-wall tabloid imagery. Now, if you do not speak, your story will be told for you.
    This represents a problem for some legacy brands, but it is also an opportunity. Cancel culture is developing to the point where consumers, ever more cognizant of our own collective power, want to understand multiple perspectives, even that of large brands. More than ever, it is acceptable and necessary for major brands to swiftly and respectfully dispel unmerited criticism. Considering the historic lack of trust in institutions of all types, I would suggest the era calls upon brands to be careful to defend themselves, lest they be assumed of guilt.
  4. Develop authenticity through action and communication
    Authenticity has become the branding buzzword of the last decade for good reason. In a world where trust in institutions of all kinds is historically low, brands that can prove they practice what they preach reap rewards (see: SweetgreenS’wellRihanna). In a crisis, reward and risk is amplified. Even if morality or social good is not core to your purpose, being clear about who you are, expressing some degree of humility and humanity, and matching your messaging to your actions is one of the most powerful brand-building behaviors you can practice.

In summary: purpose, response, communication, and authenticity are the basic building blocks with which a brand can survive through crisis, focus and strengthen itself, and thrive.


Written by Kevin Loftus. Have you read?

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Kevin Loftus
Kevin Loftus is a brand and business development manager in New York City. Originally from Limerick, Ireland—and working in Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and Los Angeles along the way—his kinder friends commend his persistence, grit, empathy, and deep cultural expertise. Kevin Loftus is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn. He can be reached on email kevin-loftus@ceoworld.biz