The salmonella-in-peanuts debacle reminds us that brands built over a lifetime can be ruined in an instant—even for actions and outcomes for which those brands are not responsible. Sales of direct-to-consumer peanut butter—which does not contain the tainted Peanut Corporation of America nuts—are down 25%. Big names like Kelloggs (Keebler, Famous Amos), JM Smucker (Jif) and ConAgra Foods (Peter Pan) are reeling. Thousands of smaller companies have filed for bankruptcy. The lawn fertilizer giant Scotts even filed a law suit for damage to its bottom line and its good name against a supplier who failed to admit to Scotts that it had sold tainted peanut meal, used in the company’s wild bird seed. (The Washington Post, Sunday March 1st). Peanut farmers, who had nothing to do with the infected processing plant, said they are experiencing staggering losses and will plant 30% fewer crops this year (NPR, 2/10). The very brand of the peanut itself has been damaged.
One of the lessons to learn from this brand catastrophe is that if what’s known as the “brand promise” is broken, even if not by your organization, you may be punished anyway. Nonprofits learned this the hard way after the United Way and Red Cross accounting issues arose, and Congress, the IRS and donors large and small began asserting themselves with concerns about financial oversight at other 501(c)3’s.
So, how to deal with such brand threats?
Of course, you must actively push out the great stories of your organization and what it does in the world. Web-delivered success anecdotes, You-tube videos, and Facebook updates are all part of this package, and most nonprofits are already actively managing and updating this content in order to “tell their story” every day. But often overlooked is another component of brand management: defending your story, and your good name, from becoming tarnished by forces both internal and external.
Two excellent antidotes to brand threats are 1) good governance, and 2) good listening. In today’s climate of more rigorous oversight, small organizations must create better clarity, benchmarks and rules for how they run themselves. Larger ventures have a different challenge: peeling back the layers of programs, administration and large boards so that constituents–donors, staff, volunteers—can understand what you do and how you do it. Maintaining a high level of transparency and using governance best practices are part of the antidote for brand problems.
Intertwined with good governance must be a regular process for good listening. That means listening to those who are actively “marketing” against you. Maybe it’s an individual who was unhappy with an outcome at your hospital. Perhaps it’s a small but vocal group who disagrees with your organization’s position on a policy issue. Or someone who posts an anti-your-organization social networking page (case in point: the uproar over the new “Avatar” TV series’ lack of Asians in its lead cast, led by a Facebook group with more than 2,200 members as of today and causing the studio to recast at least one lead role.) Whatever the source—and this is critical–you need to be engaged with critics of your brand. Even when you think/know they are wrong. Even when it’s just one person. Because, in the world of 24 hour news cycles and the blogosphere, one person can be a very powerful voice.
Listening Gets Results
And if you listen, you will often find at the heart of the complaint a real issue you need to address—something that is showing a tear, if not a break, in your brand promise. Fixing it gives you the opportunity to improve your services and outcomes before a problem reaches crisis proportions. And then, be sure to tell everyone about those improvements. Rinse, repeat!