When your favorite brand screws up — Throw away or keep?


The old adage “the customers is always right” is slowly expanding to “and he’s entitled to boycott when he feels betrayed.”

But when a company they trust openly disagrees with their political views, people get really mad. So much that they stop buying their products.

Or throw out the window the ones they already own. It happened to Keurig not long ago, after it pulled advertising from Sean Hannity’s show. Some of the Fox News host’s fans filmed themselves dropping Keurig Green Mountain coffee makers from their apartment window.

Yes, that might sound a bit extreme. But the frustration is understandable. So what would be the wisest and most morally correct way to go after finding out that a company you support you support is knee-deep into murky political waters?

We asked John M. Greening, associate professor at Northwestern University, who teaches classes about company branding and is involved with startups. Greening spent 27 years at DDB Chicago. He led the team that produced popular Budweiser campaigns such as the “Frogs,” “Ants,” “Spuds MacKenzie,” “The I love you, man,” “Yes, I am” and “Whassup.”

John Greening
John M. Greening

Here are the highlights from our interview:

What happened to Keurig?

“The whole Keurig thing happened because its very public aspect. According to the report, this may be two or three people doing this. That might have been done as a visual part of the protest.

Keurig has triggered a reaction. Do they want to live with it and run the risk of losing the brand or do they believe that the customer is always right? Fix the mistake and move on. They pulled it and they don’t agree with Fox and a lot of people will applaud them for it. When you get into politics, it’s never ever black or white. If some of Trump’s supporters want to boycott them, Keurig can say ‘We don’t want their business anyway.’”

How much of a statement are you making by owning a product?

“Nobody knows what kind of soap or shampoo you’re using or what brand are your clothes (unless they are heavily logoed) unless you want people to know.

But with the items where the logo is everything — which is fashion, alcohool, cars — where the brand is an extension of you – it’s likely for people not want to be seen in clothes or in a car that is involved in a scandal. With those items, people are borrowing interest or borrowing the credibility, the fashion sense of a designer for instance. They want that logo to be noticed.

If you suddenly realize you don’t buy into that company’s politics, that brand is no longer an expression of how you want to be yourself. My guess is that you’ll wear it in private.”

How big was the initial investment?

“It all depends on the investment you made at the moment of purchase. For instance, a car is a fairly expensive thing. You probably wouldn’t buy a second one. That’s where the current purchase is still a little too dear for me to throw it away. If you spent $20,000 to $40,000 on a car, you’re gonna want to get your value out of it before you trade it in, or before you just jump it. So, in that case, a scandal will hurt any kind of repeat purchase.

With clothes, people may decide they don’t want the coat, but they also won’t just throw it away. So that product will end up in a lot of second hand stores or a garage sale. It all comes down to money.

When does it turn out that the company didn’t do anything wrong?

“Take Tylenol’s case. Back in the ’80s, when someone was poisoning the Tylenol, the company could have kept all the bottles on the shelves and said ‘Well, this is not our fault,’ and people would have continued to die.

Instead, they pulled every bit of Tylenol off the shelves and kept it like that for six months until they figured out that this was a tampering issue.

The brand has been very strong ever since.”


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