More often than not, the biggest companies are the ones embroiled in the biggest rows. From Starbucks and its well-publicised tax avoidance to, more recently, PR giant Bell Pottinger and the South Africa scandal, big names are constantly called out on their shortcomings and shortcuts.
So what is the difference between the companies that weather the storm, and the ones that crumble?
It’s all about the brand.
McDonald’s workers in Crayford and Cambridge went on strike last week to protest the company’s use of zero-hour contracts. The action, over an issue much-discussed following Labour’s promise to scrap zero-hour work in their election campaign, had the potential to significantly damage McDonald’s reputation.
But it didn’t. McDonald’s have worked hard to push their brand in a more positive direction this year, with a renewed focus on the improved quality and sustainability of its meals. Add to this the rejuvenation of many McDonald’s restaurants – with wooden accents and new tech giving them an organic and thoroughly modern feel – and it is unsurprising that the brand is still standing strong now the storm has passed.
People like McDonald’s and Starbucks, and they want to be able to continue liking them. Both companies have become symbolic emblems of modern consumer culture, and the public’s faith in their image and their offerings means that a scandal will often be acknowledged, but swiftly overlooked.
Bell Pottinger, on the other hand, is not doing so well. Recent events have seen many employees flee fearing the reputation-ruining backlash, and the media has quickly seized upon the fact that the agency has always represented clients that nobody else wanted to touch with a barge pole, anyway. Since its founding in 1957, Bell Pottinger’s brand identity has been built upon a reputation for taking on chequered clients that sparked controversy: the likes of Oscar Pistorius post-murder charge, and Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad. Bell Pottinger’s employees have recently called out the company’s toxic culture; its insistence on treading so close to the line is what has seen it crumble over the last week, with little hope of redevelopment.
Brand perception is everything, and will save you or ruin you. There are few redeeming qualities about Bell Pottinger’s brand identity that will incite the sympathy or loyalty of the public; other than the number of employees that may lose their jobs should the agency fold. McDonald’s on the other hand – a household name with a relatively wholesome and reliable reputation – would be harder to take down. Bell Pottinger filled a niche in the PR market, yet the lack of public confidence in their brand means they are unlikely to be thrown a lifeline in their time of need.
Imagine the worst PR crisis your business could suffer, and reflect on whether your brand identity as it stands could take the heat. If the answer is no, it’s time to get strategising.
Amit Jay Shah is the CEO of HIROLA Group.