Haven’t we been here before?
After all, both brands had experienced disasters before. Firestone had recovered from a major U.S. tire recall in the mid-1970s. And Ford had launched the disastrous Edsel in the 1950s. Other great brands have survived disasters too: Tylenol’s cyanide scare in 1982; Perrier’s benzene scare in 1990; Coke, first with New Coke in the 1980s, and then last year’s Belgian contamination incident; and, of course, the Exxon Valdez.
But in the past, word spread much more slowly and companies had more time to orchestrate their defense. In the mid-70s, for example, Firestone chose to rebuild trust in the brand via an advertising campaign featuring the American actor Jimmy Stewart, the quintessentially trustworthy personality.
It’s a different world today
Bad news about brands travels fast in the Internet age – too fast for companies to react quickly enough. In this latest crisis, the public relations disaster was accelerated by Internet chat rooms, where endless discussions took place about who was to blame and what should be done. Moreover, people are more sceptical and less trusting than even 10 years ago about the ‘spin’ companies put on their operations. And a media that was once relatively tame now loves nothing better than to pour more fuel on the fire in an ever-escalating ratings war. This makes managing a brand’s reputation a potentially impossible task.
Ford has the easier ride?
Many commentators believe that, though the crisis hit Ford’s image in the short term, the carmaker has a better chance than Firestone of emerging relatively unscathed. However, some say that this will only be possible if Ford states categorically that no Firestone products will be used on their vehicles unless the appropriate quality controls have been put in place.
So what options are there for Firestone?
Firstly, Bridgestone could spend heavily to rehabilitate the brand – the current company line. Or it could drop or rename the Wilderness line, which has been linked to most faulty tires. More drastically, it could drop the Firestone name in favor of Bridgestone, or create a new name altogether.
What is certain is that, if the brands are to recover, tires must be replaced quickly, lawsuits settled promptly and stringent new quality monitoring procedures put in place.
So where do we go from here?
It’s hard to predict for sure what will happen, but it is probable that, with good crisis management, we will witness once again the ultimate benefit of sustained brand-building: the ability to come back from near death because of years of good reputation captured by the brand name. Only time will tell – like a Florida recount in last year's U.S. presidential election, it’s too close to call!