Rebuilding a negative brand image

We won’t insult you with platitudes about turning a crisis into an opportunity. There’s nothing good about having a negative brand image. Let’s work on the assumption that your reputation’s poor because your products/services or customer care have let your customers down in the past. They’ve been dissatisfied.


Step One – understand the nature of your negative brand

You can categorise a negative brand image in two ways: brands that have been hit by a specific crisis and brands that have a consistently negative image. In the first category, you’d find brands like HubSpot who had a moment of crisis in 2019 when its service dropped off the radar.

You could probably put political parties into the second category, especially if the party’s in government. We never seem to have a decent word to say about our political leaders.

If you have a consistently negative brand you also need to make a brutally honest assessment of whether the brand image is justified. Are your products good but unappreciated or are customer criticisms justified? One company’s informal motto was “Don’t Be Shit” which certainly showed that they knew where their problems lay.

Before you start trying to fix your negative brand, be clear about whether you’re trying to recover from a crisis or tackle a more systemic problem.


Step Two – confession is good for the soul

The second step of your brand recovery is to acknowledge the problem in its totality. This is no masochistic exercise. This is self-preservation. If you’re going to recover from a negative brand image, you’ve got to able to point at an activity and say “that’s what we’re going to stop”. Then you can start your recovery.

If you only acknowledge part of the problem you can be sure that the bits you kept quiet about will emerge just when you think you’re digging yourself out of the hole. Any progress you will have made will be wiped out. You’ll be back to square one.

If you want an example of how not to do things, take a look at political parties. Yes, them again. It’s difficult to tell if the handling of Dominic Cummings’s lockdown-busting and his visit to Barnard Castle, for example, should be viewed as tragedy or comedy. What’s relatively easy to understand is that the negativity dragged on far longer than it should have done because new misdemeanours kept on surfacing.

HubSpot, on the other hand, handled their outage completely differently. They went into excruciating detail to explain what the problem was and how it had happened. There was far too much detail for most people to understand or even read but, by putting it all out there, they protected themselves against further revelations. There was nothing else to tell.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this makes HubSpot look good. If you give customers the choice between no disruption and a disruption with a good explanation, they’ll take no disruption every time. Wouldn’t you? We’re still talking about damage limitation.

You need to refine the explanation process if the problem is more systemic. A bigger problem requires a bigger solution. Imagine that you get consistently low scores for your customer care. You respond slowly. Your answers are unhelpful. You never call back when you say you’re going to. You don’t listen to the problems customers describe. You pass callers from one person to another. Customers never speak to the same helper twice.

Even if you only had half of these problems, people wouldn’t believe you if you said you had a quick fix.
Having said that, acknowledging your problems doesn’t have to descend into an orgy of self-flagellation. You don’t want to present your competitors with your own head on a platter. There are ways to acknowledge the problem and present the solution in an entirely positive way.

Let’s take slow response as an example. You can state that calls currently take an average of 26 rings to be answered and give details of the improvement plan that will bring this down to 5 rings within the next six months. In that way you acknowledge the problem and give a credible solution without shooting yourself in the foot.


Step Three – fix the problem, not the brand

We all know the phrase “fix the cause, not the symptom”. A negative brand image is a symptom; something else caused it. If you commission a positive brand campaign without addressing the reasons behind your negative brand, you’ll be pushing water uphill.

If you’ve suffered a crisis, start by fixing the problem. If you’re burdened with a consistently negative image, address the reasons for customer dissatisfaction.

Fixing such problems goes beyond FBA’s remit although it is easy to admire the “tackle the process, not the person” approach taken by the Mercedes Formula 1 team. This is the team that has trounced its opposition for the past six years. Part of the management culture is to de-personalise problems, to avoid finger-pointing and to stamp out a blame culture.

In The Little Black Book On Brand Marketing, we suggest that brand is contained in three Xs: eXperience, eXpectation and eXpression. Unless you improve a customer’s experience, their expectations and expressions will stay negative.


Step Four – communicate

The early stages of your communications will be about the problem. What happened? Why did it happen? What was the effect? An apology is essential even if you’re worried people may doubt your sincerity.

You have to take it on the chin in your explanation. Don’t pass the buck. Even if your supplier let you down, remember that you picked the supplier. Explain that you’ll be working to put better measures in place for the future.

Depending on your preference, you may want to avoid phrases like “making sure it never happens again”. That’s a high standard to set. If you’re struck by another problem, customers won’t be impressed if you say you solved the previous problem but that this is a different one.

There are good reasons to avoid saying "we won't let this happen again".

There are good reasons to avoid saying “we won’t let this happen again”.

The beauty about putting a plan together to fix problems is that it gives you opportunities for plenty of positive brand building during your recovery. If people understand the plan, you can talk about the milestones you’ve reached on your journey to implement it.

Coming back to the earlier example about slow customer service, you could talk about how many people have completed their retraining. You can say when your answer time has come down from 26 to 15 rings. You can start rebuilding your brand as soon as you start progressing towards your new performance targets.


If you want help putting the four steps into action, well, that’s what FBA is here for. Give us a call.

We’re surprisingly friendly.