The anatomy of brand crises

Rebuild: How Brands in India Overcame Crisis and Emerged Stronger. Better. Wiser 
Author: Ramya Ramamurthy
Publication: Hachette 
Price: Rs 599 
352 pages

It is easy to write about brand successes. CEOs and CMOs happily speak about what they managed to do under “demanding” circumstances. But approach the same people to speak about handling brand failures or brand crises, and you face an uphill battle. 

Almost ten years ago, Ivan Arthur and Kurien Mathew conducted a two-day retreat to mine crowdsourced wisdom on handling brand crises. The session held at a B School near Mumbai saw a gathering of thinkers from marketing, advertising, marketing research, strategy consulting, social sciences and so on. The result was published as a book Brands Under Fire. This reviewer was part of the group that brainstormed at the retreat. 

So, it was interesting to see that a follow-up study on that book is now ready for consumption. The author, Ramya Ramamurthy, was one of the people who was involved in curating the last session on brands under crisis. Rebuild: How Brands in India Overcame Crisis and Emerged Stronger. Better. Wiser looks at a large number of brands that have withstood crisis. Many have managed to come back stronger, but the book also speaks of a few brands that have not been able to withstand the shock. 

The author’s research is meticulous and she has reached out to numerous branding experts for their views. Where possible company spokespeople, too, have been approached for their views. Twenty-two brands or typologies have been featured in the book, 11 of them are multinational brands, so it is not fair to say that in India only foreign brands come under attack. 

The arrangement of the 22 brand cases is something that needs discussion. The author has worked on the hypothesis that a brand could face a crisis from five different forces. The most written about is “Crisis Factor #1: Environmental Hazards and Contamination”. Brands that feature in this section include the colas [two brands], Cadbury, Unilever and Maggi. “Crisis Factor #2: Mismanagement” include Uber, IPL, Kingfisher Airlines, Satyam and Sahara Group. “Crisis Factor #3: Product Recall and Related Issues” features Samsung Note 7, Sanofi, Flipkart and Automobile Recall (a broad classification where many brands are mentioned). “Crisis Factor #4: Shorter Innovation Cycles in Technology” covers Nokia, Kodak, Shoppers Stop, Landmark. The last is “Crisis Factor #5: Misguided Consumer Strategies”, which showcases Facebook, Old Monk, HMT, Tata Nano and BPL Mobile. 

As you would have realised by now, a number of interesting brands have been analysed and experts have been spoken to (full disclosure: this reviewer was also sought out for his views on some of the brand crises). Some of the brands are Indian facing unique challenges in the Indian market. Some of them are multinationals facing challenges in India and a handful are global brands that faced international heat (Uber and Kodak, for example).

The author should be commended for the way she has dug up the details and put them together into cogent brand stories. Each story is interspersed with opinion from subject matter experts. So this book is a valuable addition to marketing knowledge base that is being developed in the country. 

The book suffers a few lacunae, however. The categorisation of crises into various “Factors” is subject to interpretation. Why should Old Monk be in the “Misguided Consumer Strategies” section and not in the “Mismanagement” section? Similarly, isn’t a factor like “Product Recall” a little too broad an issue to look at? 

I also wish the publisher had done a better job of editing. For instance, Crisis Factor #5 does not find mention in the contents page, though it does appear in the body of the book. Some facts such as Bhaskar Bhat being referred to as “Former Managing Director of Titan” in the chapter on HMT is an obvious mistake. There may be a few other such mistakes that better editing could have weeded out. 

These are tiny complaints in the larger scheme of things. The effort to select 22 brands/typologies, examine published information about their crisis, contact relevant people in the company and outside for their views and string it all together into a cohesive story is not easy. It is here that Ms Ramamurthy’s many years of media experience, especially covering the world of marketing, has come into play. I believe the book is a very valuable addition to the small body of knowledge we have documented about brand crises in India. I for one would be happy to use some of the stories presented in the book as a “live case” in a marketing management course or management development programme. If your company does not have a brand crisis playbook, you may well want to start by reading this book for some valuable lessons. 

(The reviewer is an independent brand strategist and founder, a brand advisory)

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