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Crisis Makes Perfect, Sometimes

The way a company manages crisis can be as important as the way it manages success. Over the years, communications professionals have learned from the wisdom of hindsight, that crisis management is the key to a company’s future health. Some very well known brand crises provide guidance.

The 1982 Tylenol murders and Johnson & Johnson’s response to them, exemplify best practices response to crisis management. Several people died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol that had been tampered with and was laced with cyanide. Although Johnson & Johnson had no responsibility for the deaths of these individuals, the way they managed this tragedy made it possible for the Tylenol brand to survive. We think nothing of taking this drug now and at this point there are many people who don’t even know that this happened to the iconic brand. The reason for the brand’s survival is the way Johnson & Johnson took on the crisis by immediately recalling the product and reintroducing it only after it developed safety measures to ensure that tampering with the drug would be very difficult.

In 1996, Odwalla Inc., known for its healthy juice products, had a serious crisis. Some of its products containing unpasteurized apple juice were found to be contaminated with E.coli. A number of people became ill after drinking the juice. Odwalla reacted to the crisis by recalling many of its juice products, even those that were not known to have E.coli contamination. The company demonstrated its commitment to the public’s health and welfare in the way it handled this crisis. The emphasis on consumer well being tracked precisely with the healthy nature of the juices the company sold. This alignment of values and action was impressive and ensured that consumers would continue to have access to these juices for years to come.

And now it is Chipotle Mexican Grill’s turn to save itself. Many formerly loyal consumers have stayed away from Chipotle since the crisis began. Not even the beloved Haiku, written by Chipotle fans, could bring us back. Nothing has yet convinced fans that the place is serving up healthy foods. The company’s stock has lost nearly 15% of its value in the recent past.

AdAge reports that Chipotle is about to actively take on the impact of its plummeting stock value and get fans back into those long lines we became accustomed to seeing. Chipotle-related E.coli illnesses have occurred in several states and food safety practices are front and center in this crisis. Before walking that line and tossing some salsa on their burritos, customers want to know that they can do so safely. Initially, Chipotle said it would wait for the Centers for Disease Control to complete its investigation before re-marketing the brand. But the company appears to be getting ready to relaunch the brand and get folks back in the doors.

Chipotle is about to launch some limited explanations and some discounts. Something that Tylenol did to bring back their customer base. But apparently they do not intend to make food safety a major message in their new marketing campaign. It remains to be seen whether this will work since most loyal customers want information. Perhaps Chipotle didn’t have much to give them until now. But the public will not return until they have assurances that Chipotle has identified the reason for the food safety problems and made significant changes in their food safety practices.