Ghost in the Machine

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Toyota’s latest crisis illustrates a problem that will continue to plague multinational businesses: what does "the brand" stand for when there’s seeming limitless breadth, depth, and variability to corporate activity?

In other words, crises haunt big companies like ghosts, and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more demand that we turn on the lights and look at what these machines and their brands really mean.

What does the Toyota brand stand for? It’s the same question that arose in 2007 when Mattel had to recall over a million toys because they’d been slathered with lead-based paint. It lurked behind Boeing’s problems with bolts not properly attaching the wings to its new 787 jets in 2007. In both those instances the answer was that the brands stood for qualities that were above, if not simply detached from the ugly reality of corporate behavior. The bad news was a direct result of corporate decisions. The brands weren’t involved, however

Though Toyota has claimed responsibility for its gas pedal and mat issues — the founder’s grandson bowed over his apology only after the company exhausted every other excuse, including silence and then trying to implicitly blame a subcontractor — its corporate advertising today is all about its brand meaning more

When did branding become a synonym for creative invention?

I know we marketers love our expert distinctions between brand and reputation and image, but I’d suggest that it’s all the same thing when contrasted with the exigencies of reality. It’s no surprise that trust in corporations is at an all-time low, as are many measures of customer service satisfaction. This isn’t the fault of consumers’ abandoning old media; no amount of clicking, friending, or token charitable good works can overcome it. 

Call it whatever you want, but I say the problem isn’t how branding is accomplished, but rather what it says, or doesn’t say, about corporate behavior. And it’s why nobody believes what we tell them anymore.

So preparing for the inevitable problem shouldn’t be a PR strategy; no crisis communications plan can do anything but help smooth the edges of a reality that is implicitly and jarringly sharp. Most multinational businesses are too big, their functions too outsourced, and their independent staff resources too diffuse to fit neatly into the machinations of the most brilliant branding gurus. People need a new language for understanding these entities and their behavior, not invented blather that has no connection to the facts.

This is important because I suspect more and worse conflicts and breakdowns are inevitable, which means the only viable strategy is to communicate about brands before the crises happen: 

  • Recognize that branding should be driven by actual corporate behavior
  • It should be delivered in deference to the context of reality and stakeholders’ experience
  • Tell people the truth faster, and do it more extensively and completely than your competition
  • Be creative and funny or whatever else you need to be, but the only way brands matter is if ultimately they stand for things that are real

By the time a crisis hits it’s too late to explain those ghosts in the machine. And you ignore them at your peril. 

Turn on the lights now.

Image source: kenjonbro

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