The Brand Rehab Playbook: How to Repair a Damaged Brand


The Super Bowl was a smashing success for the Eagles, and a few brands had a big night too. Amazon’s celeb-packed Alexa spot won top marks on the USA Today Ad Meter and Tide’s fourth wall-breaking series of commercials were also much talked about. But Ram provoked a backlash for what many thought was the tasteless use of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to sell trucks.

There aren’t the first brand to see their good name sullied, and many are facing much bigger problems than just a poorly received Super Bowl ad.

Wells Fargo has been working to repair its brand issues for several years now. After it was revealed that employees at the banking giant had been opening unauthorized accounts in customers’ names, then CEO John Stumpf was forced to make the rounds in Washington D.C. to apologize for the breach of trust.

Stumpf stood before a heated Senate panel to express that he and the company were “deeply sorry” for conduct that “failed to fulfill our responsibilities to our customers, our team members and the American public.”

Volkswagen is just beginning to move past the uproar that occurred following its issues around emissions testing for its diesel cars. The German automaker saw tens of billions in brand equity disappear as formerly loyal customers began to eye them with suspicion.

A Canadian musician created a viral sensation in 2008 when his instrument was damaged during a United Airlines flight. Dissatisfied with the company’s reaction to his plight, he memorialized the incident with a song, “United Breaks Guitars,” that has nearly 18 million views on YouTube to date.

Thanks to the internet, mistakes travel further and faster than days past and angry mobs form in a flash. Brand blunders are more costly than ever.

The question, then, is how do brands that have seen customer relationships damaged by scandal earn back that trust? Fortunately, there is a fairly well established playbook to follow for brand recovery:

Step 1: Assess the Damage

Were lives lost? Were you at fault? How systemic is the problem? Your response should be proportional to the damage done. Obviously, major steps need to be taken right away if people were hurt or killed. If you are directly at fault there will be an expectation that you lead the effort to make things right. If the problem is systemic, just firing a scapegoat or killing off a product or division won’t be good enough. You need to show that things have changed. Even if the damage isn’t this catastrophic, you still have to honestly assess the full extent what has happened and proceed according to a well thought out and authentic plan for forgiveness and redemption.

Step 2: Be Humble

Now is not the time to run ads touting your flawless record or try that risque campaign you were considering. Play things safe for a while. This is a good time to reexamine your brand’s fundamental character and think about where it all started. Get back to basics and focus on your core competency. VW, for example, put their eco-conscious marketing goals on the back burner for awhile and got back to reminding people that they make great cars.

Step 3: Stay Visible

A brand dilemma is also not the time to disappear completely and let the narrative run amok. Crisis calls for leadership. Show that you are up to the challenge and committed to correcting course. Replace the negative image circulating with a positive one.

Step 4: Ask for Forgiveness

You made a mistake, so apologize. You don’t have tear your shirt to shreds and beg for mercy, but don’t act like nothing happened either.

Step 5: Come Clean

If you hold back information and it comes out later you will compound your problems and seriously hinder your chances at rehabbing the brand. According to consultant Lou Rubin: “The first issue is, you can’t hide. You must acknowledge the problem. People want to forgive, and contrition is an accepted part of our culture. Lying is not.”

Use traditional media channels, like TV, radio, and newspapers as well as digital and social media channels like Facebook and YouTube. You want to be as broad as possible, so the message is seen as genuinely intended for everyone.

Step 6: Offer a Solution

As they say, “you broke it, you bought it.” If you’re BP and you made a mess of the Gulf of Mexico, you now have an obligation to repair and restore the damage. When a maniac started putting poison in Tylenol bottles, Johnson & Johnson wasted no time. It immediately took the product off the shelf and began developing tamper-evident bottles.

Step 7: Move On

Only go through this process once. Say your piece, initiate the repair process as soon as possible, and then start putting this mess behind you. Don’t get caught in an endless cycle of atoning for the same sin.

Final Thought: It’s All About Trust

Authenticity is valued above all else and trust begins with authenticity. Trust is a vital component of brand equity. Even the most sterling brand can be laid low if its customers feel betrayed or cheated. Or, as investing scion Warren Buffett quotably put it: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” It’s never easy to earn back lost goodwill and faith, but if you follow these steps, you improve your chances.

The bottom line is that you need to move with speed, poise, and sincerity when faced with a brand emergency. Impressions can become ingrained in people’s heads if you tary. And don’t forget, people may be quick to jump on someone they feel wronged by, but they love a redemption story too! Be swift and be genuine in your response and make every effort to legitimately repair the damage done.