A week ago last Sunday, millions of Americans watched The Oscars. As everyone now knows, “Moonlight” won the best picture award, but only after “La La Land” was first accidentally announced as the winner. Also, as many people now know, this mistake occurred because an envelope was misdelivered by one of the co-ballot leaders from the accounting firm that handles the voting process for the awards show.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers (“PwC”) has held the balloting responsibility for the Oscars for decades. PwC’s promotional materials tout the relationship to bolster its reputation:
This video is an example of how associations with events, organizations, causes, and people can develop the connotations associated with a brand. We have seen this happen when brand owners launch advertising campaigns to signal support for various political or social causes.
Another way that mark owners extend the reach of their brand is to enter into license agreements that associate the mark with new goods and services in the minds of consumers. In this case, PwC’s video links the attributes that make it a successful accounting firm with those that made it a choice for handling the balloting responsibility for the Oscars. PwC says it was asked to take on this role because of its “integrity, accuracy, and confidentiality.” In the video, the co-balloters explain the importance of their responsibility for maintaining the confidence of the ballots in their possession until the time the winner is to be announced.
Linking the accounting firm’s reputation with this particular task, one that is seen by more of the public than most of PwC’s other daily work, may have helped build the goodwill of PwC’s name and reputation…. until the mistake at the most recent awards ceremony. Having spent all this time and effort to associate the good name of PwC with the balloting work for the Oscars, how is PwC to repair its reputation after the public error witnessed by millions of viewers?
PwC is not the first mark owner to suffer unexpected injury to its goodwill in this way. And it is possible to rebuild the goodwill in a brand even after much greater injuries. Perhaps the most well-known (and successful) brand rehabilitation campaign was Johnson & Johnson’s recovery after Tylenol capsules on store shelves were poisoned, resulting in deaths of seven consumers in the early 1980s. The brand owner moved quickly. First, it protect consumers’ interests with an unprecedented recall of the product and implemented new safety features in the packaging to reassure consumers that the capsules they were about to consume were free of tampering. Then it communicated this clearly through advertisements that emphasized Tylenol’s good reputation.
Fortunately for PwC, it is not facing nearly as dire a scandal. It need not go through the same steps to recover from this injury, but it can consider applying some of the same principles that made brand rehabilitation possible.
First, take responsibility. PwC promptly apologized, twice. In its second apology, it clearly accepted the blame. Second, take action. Apologizing does little if the brand owner does not take steps to prevent the error from happening again. For Johnson & Johnson, that meant a issuing a recall and implementing new packaging. For PwC, it might mean something much less drastic. For example, improvements to protocols and procedures (or ensuring adherence to them) could provide the necessary reassurance in this case. Third, tailor the response and messaging to the nature of the damage. This is where PwC’s judgment will be most tested. The Oscar scandal was very public, and embarrassing, but the severity and permanence of the damage suffered by third parties is relatively low. PwC will have to assess how much damage was done to its reputation among its core audience and focus its rehabilitation efforts accordingly.
Trademarks are symbols of goodwill and reputation. Brand owners choose strong marks and spend years and dollars building up the strength of the goodwill associated with those marks. Few companies escape the occasional mistake, embarrassment, or unfortunate association. How companies respond to such circumstances can determine whether and how successfully a company repairs and rebuilds its brand and reputation.