Lessons in Marketing Damage Control

On the Comeback Trail: How Brands Successfully Weather a Setback

In early January, more than 20,000 runners were poised to hit the pavement in a half marathon at Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, as part of runDisney’s annual Marathon Weekend, which comprises a series of races, with distances ranging from a 5K to a full marathon. Some of these runners were planning to log just those 13.1 miles, while others had set their sights on pairing the half marathon with other weekend races to complete milestone 39.3- and 48.6-mile events (appropriately named the Goofy and Dopey challenges, respectively).

Sadly, hours before the race, Mother Nature assumed the role of a Disney villain.

Threats of severe thunderstorms caused the Saturday-morning race to be canceled, a fate all runners fear but acknowledge as a possibility when they sign their prerace waivers. Around 7 p.m. on the eve of the race, participants (some of whom had traveled from as far away as Australia and Europe) were notified by email, text, and via social media—namely, runDisney’s Facebook posts and tweets—that the race was being called. What happened next was a textbook lesson in how to turn a potentially calamitous state of affairs into positive public relations, and a fitting tribute to Walt Disney’s belief in always giving guests more than they expect, something he liked to call “plussing the experience.”

“Ultimately, it comes down to humility. If they can express sufficient humility, people will forgive them.”

runDisney, which was legally under no obligation to offer any form of compensation, gave every one of its rained-out runners multiple alternatives in the wake of the race cancellation. These options included two one-day theme-park passes, deferral to another Disney half marathon in the United States within the next two years (there are almost 10 annually to choose from), a refund of the race-registration fee in the form of a Disney gift card, and, for those signed up for the half marathon only, the opportunity to run the following day’s full marathon. (Some 1,500 intrepid souls chose the latter, running the equivalent of two half marathons instead of the singleton they had originally trained for. Yikes! There’s nothing goofy about that! Or maybe there is.)


Marketers, take heed. This is how you recover from a nightmare situation—at a speed even an elite runner would appreciate. Well done, runDisney. Way to pull off an E-ticket marketing move.

How have other brands bounced back from major public-relations predicaments? Let’s have a look.

Lululemon’s Yoga-Pants Faux Pas

In 2013, as the athleisure craze was gathering steam, retailer Lululemon stubbed its toe very publicly with not one but two major gaffes that found the brand scrambling to regain its balance. First came a massive recall of several styles of its yoga pants that, when worn, proved to be a tad too revealing. As if that wasn’t enough, a few months later, Chip Wilson, the company’s founder and then-chairman, addressing the issue on Bloomberg Television, said, “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” for Lululemon clothing. “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs.”

Wilson’s ill-advised and insensitive remarks clearly were not the way to rebuild brand loyalty. The backlash was immediate and severe. “Social media outrage skyrocketed,” the New York Times reported. In the aftermath of Wilson’s comments, Lululemon’s stock prices, already down due to the recall, took a second hit, and dozens of competitors—including Athleta, Nike, and Tory Burch—swooped in to give disgruntled Lululemon shoppers new places to spend their activewear dollars.

Soon after his ill-fated television appearance, Wilson was out as CEO, and the company found itself in full recovery mode. Christine Day, who took the helm after Wilson resigned, is credited with steering the brand through the crisis. She fired the chief product officer, offered full refunds on the recalled Luon pants, and promised to have an upgraded version on the shelves in 90 days. The recall cost the company $67 million in sales (the pants sold for $72 to $98 apiece), but Day’s openness and swift response to the catastrophe won the brand high marks for, ahem, transparency.

The Canadian retailer addressed the sheer-fabric concerns by rolling out a revamped version of its black Luon pants with a “Back in Black” marketing campaign that included an education component designed to win back hesitant customers. The post-recall outreach campaign included emails, a guest-feedback forum, online videos, and a video series called “Ask Britt,” where customers could direct their product questions. Social media was abuzz with reactions—both positive and negative—to the 2.0 Luon pants. Internally, the brand made improvements to its inspection process and beefed up its quality control.

Forbes checked in after the dust from the incident had settled. “Three months on, the see-through pants debacle appeared to be over,” wrote Clare O’Connor. She quoted retail analyst Patty Edwards, of Trutina Financial, who told her, “It seemed like, ‘OK, we’re done.’ They handled the whole situation incredibly well.”

Regaining Customer Trust After a Health Scare

As 2016 opened, fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill faced every food-service establishment’s worst nightmare: a chainwide shutdown brought on by food-borne illnesses traced to contaminated products. The episode actually began the previous summer, when the chain was linked to E. coli and norovirus outbreaks in California, and norovirus and Salmonella diagnoses in Minnesota. These cases garnered only minor attention, but, in October, dozens of E. coli cases were reported in eight states, and the following month norovirus sickened 140 Boston College students, including half the men’s basketball team. Two months later, the Centers for Disease Control traced more E. coli cases to the burrito chain’s food. Fourth-quarter net income for the Denver-based company plunged 44 percent, USA Today reported.

In recent months, Chipotle has leveraged Snapchat to attract millennials as it works to rebuild brand confidence.

In all, around 500 people were sickened by the contaminations, and the Chipotle faithful were shaken. The company, which had built its brand by boldly (some might argue smugly) trumpeting its “food with integrity” mantra, assumed a somber tone as the crisis heightened. Dozens of outlets traced to the illnesses were temporarily shut down, and the company was hit with numerous lawsuits.

The brand’s recovery efforts took center stage when Chipotle outlets across the U.S. opened four hours late—missing out on prime lunchtime business—on Feb. 8, 2016, as 50,000 employees gathered in 400 theaters and convention halls across the country to discuss the recent food-safety scares. Workers listened as company executives presented new procedures to ensure food safety. Chipotle live-tweeted the meeting and streamed it on Periscope. This came on the heels of company founder and cochief executive Steve Ells’s Dec. 10, 2015, TODAY show apology and announcement that the chain would centralize more of its food-preparation activity and implement more rigid quality testing. Customers were wooed back to their local stores with a free-burrito giveaway, and a pilot loyalty program was launched.

The 1,900-store fast-casual chain has received generally high marks for its response to the crisis, although its actions were criticized by some as being initially ineffective. Most analysts agree that the chain’s long-standing branding efforts curried enough favor to carry it through this rough patch. “With Chipotle, they created such goodwill before these problems that although that’s been eroded, it’s not terminal at this point,” PR crisis expert Jonathan Bernstein told Campaign US. “Ultimately, it comes down to humility. If they can express sufficient humility, people will forgive them.”

In recent months, Chipotle has leveraged Snapchat to attract millennials as it works to rebuild brand confidence. Its weekly one-minute School of Guac posts are aimed at the company’s Gen Y and Gen Z customers. Mashable called the program “a cross between a variety show and a news satire in the vein of The Daily Show.”

It appears Chipotle’s edginess has returned. Time will tell if its customers will.

A Cup of Controversy

Starbucks customers are almost as passionate about the coffee shop’s cups as they are about its lattes and Frappuccinos. So you’d think the coffee giant would have learned its lesson with the controversy over its 2015 plain red holiday cup. But no. This past November, the coffee chain unveiled a new cup in its US stores that sported a design it claimed celebrated community. The distinctive pattern featured a mosaic of more than 100 faces peering out from the cup’s forest-green background and its front-and-center white circle. A single line connected the figures. If you looked closely you might have spotted a coffee farmer, a toddler, older folks, and friends embracing. Drawn by artist Shogo Ota in one continuous stroke, the figures appear to flow into one another. The design, explained Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, was meant to “create a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other.”

The post-recall outreach campaign included emails, a guest-feedback forum, online videos, and a video series.

The Twittersphere and Facebook feeds soon filled with tweets and posts, pro and con. Many loved the cup and its artistic message of unity. Some wondered if the cup was the coffee chain’s new holiday offering. Others were offended by what they viewed as a political message. Starbucks wasted no time in addressing the criticism, explaining to Fortune and CBS News that the cup was not the official holiday design, and reassuring followers that that much-anticipated series would be rolled out later in the month. (And lo and behold, when that cup did debut, it was the red cup 2.0, bedecked with a variety of festive holiday designs. Well played, Starbucks.)

“Although it may upset some people, you need to stick with your overall message,” Jason Mudd wrote in reference to the unity-cup controversy for the Business Journals. “If the message encompasses a hot-button issue, you probably have to brace for a backlash either way.” In addition, when faced with a brouhaha (brewhaha?) like this, a brand can also look for opportunities to engage online influencers. One fan of the unity cup tweeted parts of Schultz’s statement verbatim, giving Starbucks some online love. As Mudd pointed out, that kind of favorable reaction gave Starbucks the opportunity to reach out to its fans and “find out what drives brand loyalty and how to bolster the company’s reputation.” In other words, Starbucks now had the perfect chance to get to know its community—and create a little unity. That’s a cup more than half full, any way you decorate it.

Lessons Learned

These examples show that brands can bounce back from setbacks despite their severity, and can even go on to thrive in a competitive marketplace. Transparency, apologies, candor, and honesty are the keys. Standing behind your core values and reaching out to brand loyalists promptly and genuinely go a long way toward rebuilding a shaken brand.

However, weathering one storm shouldn’t invite complacency. In the words of Fast Company’s Martin Lindstrom, “The PR crisis is a wake-up call for every company to prepare in case of a similar blunder. No matter how good you are or how trusted your brand is today, no one’s immune from a PR crisis forever.”

Photos: Shutterstock

Marcia Kirlin

Marcia Kirlin

There’s a good chance you’ll find copy editor Marcia Kirlin with her nose in a book, preferably one with paper pages you turn the old-school way—and are occasionally even dog-eared. Gasp!

Meet Marcia Kirlin