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Five Brand Disasters that Built Positive PR


Any change to a classic brand with a loyal following must be handled very carefully, lest negative PR fallout follow.  Just look at the feeding frenzy surrounding Cadbury UK’s admission that it altered the recipe for its classic crème egg.  The move from “dairy milk” to standard cocoa mix chocolate for the egg’s shell prompted a meltdown among British fans of the treat.  The UK Guardian called the change “an abomination” and urged its readers to “fight for chocolate justice.”

The shell shock surrounding Cadbury reminded me of other cases where tweaks to a beloved brand were met with a fury of customer rebellion.  Yet, sometimes, a seeming disaster can actually reawaken  positive public sentiment and positive PR  for the product or business in question.  When loyal fans rally around a seemingly unnecessary change in formula or packaging, it can make the brand more relevant.  Ever since the ultimate product change on U.S. shores—the launch of New Coke in 1988—marketers have occasionally tapped reservoirs of loyalty that they may not have known existed, once the mistake is corrected.

Positive PR Driven by Loyal Consumers

Trop’s Packaging Loses Its Juice

They never saw it coming.  When PepsiCo’s Tropicana moved away from its iconic packaging featuring a straw in a brightly colored orange, customers reacted sourly, calling the package “sterile” and “generic.”  Worse, retail sales actually plummeted.  Feeling the squeeze, Tropicana’s marketers wisely restored the original packaging and explained in marketing interviews that they appreciated the renewed customer attention.

Maker’s Mark Nearly Dilutes Its Brand

This one played out like a PR ploy by the distiller—which it may have been.  Maker’s Mark announced that, due to product shortages, it would lower the alcohol content of its bourbon to stretch its supply.  Loyal customers found the change hard to swallow.  They responded with such outrage that the bourbon maker backpedaled within days.  “What we’ve learned is that this is the customer’s brand,” summed up Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels.

Trouble Brews for Twinings

Yet another PR tempest in a teacup occurred when Twinings tinkered with its 200-year-Earl Grey blend.  Despite successful market testing, the new brew was roundly rejected by Earl Grey sippers, some of whom threatened a Boston style tea party.  Others organized a Facebook campaign to bring back the original brew.  They succeeded, with one comment labeling it “democracy at its highest level.”  Smart marketing, too.

Gap Returns to Classic Form

I’m not so sure that the backlash against Gap’s refashioned logo extended beyond brand marketers and designers, but the stark new design unleashed a social buzz that was quickly picked up in traditional press.  At first Gap sought to turn the situation to its advantage by crowdsourcing new logo designs, but the search spurred more scorn.  It ultimately reverted to the classic logo, and “Gapgate” faded into brand history.   But “logogate” may have made Gap more visible than it had been in years.

Chevy Hits a Roadblock

This one wasn’t a brand formulation or packaging change, and it was hardly a disaster, but it backfired anyway.  A unique nickname can be a huge asset for a brand, but a GM Marketing VP only learned that when his private memo became a public joke.  The marketer tried to lay down the law by forbidding use of “Chevy” instead of “Chevrolet” in the name of brand consistency.  The move was ridiculed in the press, and the brand quickly shifted gears to welcome back its old nickname.

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About Dorothy Crenshaw

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and Creative Director of Crenshaw Communications, a boutique PR firm focused on marketing and reputation building strategies for consumer and technology brands under the banner "Creative Public Relations for a Digital World." She founded her firm after a 15-year career in marketing PR that included senior posts at Edelman and Grey Advertising's GCI Group.

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