5 Brand Crisis Examples

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If a hashtag for your brand is trending on social media, you’ve either accomplished something amazing…or your brand is being dragged through the mud in a full-fledged crisis. There’s no in-between. Riding the wave of a positive trending hashtag or viral post is easy. Figuring out how to navigate a brand crisis is not. 

If you say the wrong thing, you could spark the internet’s rage, losing scores of customers. If you handle the crisis well, on the other hand, there’s a chance for redemption. We’ve brought you five of the most notable brand crisis examples to help you determine what to do if your brand lands in hot water. 

1. Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad

In April 2017, Pepsi released a commercial that shows people from all walks of life marching in the streets while Kendall Jenner watches from a doorway. She’s shooting a modeling gig, but when the protestors invite her to join them, she pulls off her wig and enters the crowd. 

The protestors encounter a wall of police officers, but all it takes for them to let the crowd keep marching is—you guessed it—Kendall Jenner handing them a cold Pepsi. 

Screenshot from New York Times article about Pepsi ad with image of Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer

The ad met with immediate backlash. TIME magazine called the ad “a glaring misstep.” The New York Times shared an article featuring the Twitter post by Bernice King—daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King—in reaction to the “tone-deaf” commercial. 

Bernice King Tweet that says, "If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi" with image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and cops

So what did Pepsi do? Instead of doubling down, it pulled the ad and issued an apology less than 48 hours after the commercial’s release.

Tweet of Pepsi apology stating that they are removing the content and halting the further rollout

While the brand explained why it had made the commercial in the first place, it didn’t use these honorable intentions to excuse the misguided ad. Instead, Pepsi took the blame for the ad—and for putting Jenner in an uncomfortable position—and removed the short film from its marketing campaign. 

These days, the world hasn’t forgotten Pepsi’s brand crisis but has largely forgiven it. 

The Takeaway: A rapid and sincere apology goes a long way toward making things right if you unintentionally put out harmful content. But don’t stop there. Make sure your apology is backed by change, so you don’t repeat your mistake. 

2. Chipotle’s E. Coli Outbreak

Chipotle used to be so popular that college students would drive two hours in one direction to enjoy a giant burrito stuffed with their favorite Mexican-inspired ingredients. But in 2015, the fast-casual chain suffered a series of hits across locations in Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts when hundreds of people fell ill due to E. coli and salmonella after dining at Chipotle. Dozens of these victims experienced symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization. 

The company’s stock prices plummeted in response to being forced to shutter dozens of its restaurants temporarily. 

The company rallied, strengthening its food safety requirements, replacing contaminated ingredients, and deep-cleaning its many locations. Founder Steve Ells issued an open letter defending Chipotle and outlining the measures the company was taking place to fix the problem. An apology was tacked on to the end of the letter. 

The first section of Chipotle statement titled "A Message from Chipotle Founder Steve Ells"

For a couple of years, the company’s renewed commitment to food safety seemed to work. But then a major norovirus outbreak at a Virginia location caused over 135 people to get sick

The trouble didn’t end there. In 2018, a whopping 646 people contracted food poisoning caused by the Clostridium perfringens bacteria after eating at an Ohio Chipotle.

Finally, Steve Ells stepped down from his leading role in 2018 under pressure from investors. Industry pro Brian Niccol took his place and worked with the Chipotle team to turn the company around—and it worked.

Brian Niccol's featured image from his New York Times profile

Customers who ditched the restaurant during the outbreak years are returning in droves. The company’s stock prices have recovered.

A five-year snapshot of Chipotle's stock prices showing a growth of 338.53%

Most importantly, no major outbreaks have been reported in recent years. 

The Takeaway: Sometimes, seeking new leadership with a fresh vision is the only way to turn a brand crisis into a success story.

3. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Running Out Of Chicken

What happens when Kentucky Fried Chicken runs out of the protein that made it famous? Hilarity, that’s what. In February 2018, KFC chains in Britain ran out of chicken due to a miscommunication with its chicken supplier. Most of the nearly 900 stores in the UK had to close temporarily, which could have been a disaster for the brand’s reputation. 

But instead of pointing fingers, the brand placed this ad in major UK newspapers: 

KFC's apology ad with a fried chicken bucket with the letters FCK on it

In the apology, the company acknowledged the hassle for customers who “traveled out of their way to find we were closed.” It thanks the KFC staff and franchise owners, and it reports progress and provides a link to a landing page where customers can find updates on their local KFC. 

In short? It’s genius. KFC is so popular in the UK that some customers called their local police station to complain about the shortage. The supply chain disaster could have tarnished KFC’s reputation for a long time, making a recovery slow. Instead, the brand turned the situation into something memorably funny. And that’s how it’s still viewed today.

The Takeaway: If there’s a blunder somewhere in your supply chain or you experience a long-lasting technical difficulty that leads to customer complaints, it might help to think of a funny way to:

  • Offer a heartfelt apology
  • Acknowledge the frustration without pointing fingers
  • Keep customers informed of your progress toward a resolution

4. Samsung’s Exploding Phones

When it comes to smartphones, two brand names dominate the pack: Apple and Samsung. The two are constantly vying for the top spot. But in 2016, Samsung experienced a blow to its confidence—and its stock market value. 

Why? Because shortly after its release, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone started catching fire, and some phones even exploded.

Samsung Galaxy's overheated battery

The company had to stop making the Note 7. It sent replacement products to customers everywhere and lost stock value to the tune of $26 billion. The United States government recalled both the Note 7 phone and the replacement phones and banned them from all air travel. Experts estimated that Samsung lost $17 billion in sales and might never recover. 

While the company’s initial response—sending more faulty phones and failing to let customers know they could explode—didn’t impress anyone, things got better. Samsung went into full-on problem-solving mode, spending 120 days working as intensely as if the company were a startup, according to Tim Baxter, the chief executive of Samsung North America at the time. 

The company launched an internal investigation in which 700 engineers tested over 200,000 devices and 30,000 batteries. Three separate third-party safety auditors investigated the problem. In the end, the company discovered that some of its factories had been jamming batteries into too-small cases, resulting in faulty and exploding devices. 

Samsung put together a battery advisory board, set up new routine tests to identify potential points of failure, and created software that made any Note 7s that were still out in the world completely unusable. 

Sales have rebounded since the event, and Samsung’s willingness to investigate itself and repair what it had done wrong helped maintain its reputation. 

The Takeaway: When there’s a flaw in your product or service, make it right with your customers—and then get to the root cause of the issue, putting new procedures in place to prevent it from happening again. 

5. Crockpot Cares

Sometimes, brand crises happen even though a company does nothing wrong. Take the fascinating case of This Is Us and the Crockpot, for example. 

In a heartbreaking 2018 episode of NBC’s hit show, viewers watched in horror as an old slow cooker caused a fire in the Pearson home. Though the fan-favorite father character, Jack Pearson, didn’t die immediately, smoke inhalation ended his life later in the episode. 

And This Is Us fans heaped the blame on the humble Crockpot. 

Three negative tweets about Crockpot with the hashtag #ThisIsUs

Fans declared their newfound hatred for Crockpots. Some vowed to throw their Crockpot away, while others expressed fear at the idea of a Crockpot fire. The fans who decided to keep their Crockpots posted on Twitter about how their Crockpot would forever make them feel sad and afraid.

Talk about a PR nightmare. And none of it was the Crockpot brand’s fault! 

This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman must’ve felt bad about unintentionally dragging Crockpots through the mud, because he made a Twitter post in defense of slow cookers everywhere. 

Dan Fogelman tweet that says, "Taking a moment to remind everyone that it was a 20 year old fictional crockpot with an already funky switch? Let's not just lump all those lovely hardworking crockpots together. #ThisIsIs"

The people behind the Crockpot brand probably felt incredibly annoyed at the undeserved backlash. But they didn’t show it. Instead, Crockpot created a Twitter account with the handle @CrockPotCares. The brand expressed its love for Jack Pearson. It mourned with fans but gently reminded them that a Crockpot is highly unlikely to start a kitchen fire

It also teamed up with Milo Ventimiglia, the actor who plays Jack Pearson, to produce a tongue-in-cheek commercial about forgiveness. The special star of the commercial? Milo’s own beloved Crockpot safely making chili for a Super Bowl party. 

Pinned Crockpot tweet with still from Milo Ventimiglia's Crockpot commercial that says, "Milo knows the truck. It's time we all get along - #CrockPotIsInnocent."

What better way to combat Crockpot hate than to bring the actor who plays Jack Pearson onto a sweet commercial about forgiving Crockpots for Jack Pearson’s death? 

The Takeaway: Your product or service might get trampled on for reasons you can’t control. If ignoring the hate doesn’t seem like the best option, look for ways to capitalize on the extra exposure. 

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