When Good Brands Do Bad

So many readers were angered by Bill Breen's remarks on the Presidential election yesterday that it brought to mind some new research from the Stanford School of Business. The new study, "When Good Brands Do Bad," explores what happens when a "highly-trusted" or "exciting" brand offends its customers. With a few readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions to our magazine over Bill's post, the new research is worth a look.

As Fast Company's editor, I'm hoping Stanford marketing professor Jennifer Aaker is right in her conclusion that in some cases offending a customer can actually reinvigorate flagging consumer interest and loyalty.

Here's what Aaker, along with collegues Susan Fournier at Harvard Business School and S. Adam Brasel, a PhD candidate in marketing at Stanford, did to get to their counterintuitive result. They put together a two-month field experiment allowing consumers to form relationships with an online photographic service brand called Captura Photography Services. Two personalities were created for the brand: One that was "sincere." Think classic and sincere in terms of a Hallmark, Ford, or Coca-Cola. The other was "exciting." Think energetic, irreverent and cool in terms of a YAHOO!, Virgin, or MTV.

The 48 "customers" interacted with the branded service one to three times each week over two months. Then, the academics pulled a rather nasty trick on half of the participants in each group. The "customers" were told that an employee had accidentallly erased their oneline pixs. Apologies were sent out two days later when online photo albums were restored.

The findings: The "sincere" brand forged stronger bonds with consumers than the "exciting" brand—until the photos were lost. "The transgression did remarkable damage to the sincere brand," say the researchers. And even after the apology and the recovery, the sincere brand failed to show significant signs of recovery.

But here's the counterintuitive surprise: After the apology and recovery, consumers who used the "exciting" brand saw their relationship take an upturn. "The relationship became more permanent in the participants' mind," the researchers said. "And, the event allowed trust, accountability, and responsibility to be established for the first time. In this sense, the transgression operated as a mains of reinvigorating the exciting brand relationship."

"Trust," says Asker, "is much heraled in marketing, but it has a downside. When trust is violated—as it often is in long-standing relationships—particularly those established with a sincere, warm and honest partner—it can be devastating. So be aware of the type of brand partner you are, the type of relationship you are helping to create, and the expectations that are being set in the consumer's mind."

I'm hoping that Fast Company is the "exciting" brand that may have offended some readers but has the opportunity now to "reinvigorate" our relationships with readers.

Add New Comment


  • Jerry

    You did not offend me in the least!!! As a matter of fact, I got three of my friends to read the psoting and buy subscriptions!! Please do not buckle to the right-wing bullies. If they can not take a little criticism, foreget them then!!

  • Gabriel Salcido

    John, you are alienating people even more by NOT apologizing. I don't really care about what Bill thinks, but I expect to read about business issues in this blog. I believe Bill's error was his poor choice of forum which can be perceived as a total disregard towards your readers.

  • peter


    I think the connection to Good Brands do Bad isn't particularly helpful.

    It trivialises what is an important issue and I'm not speaking about offending 51% of those who vote in the US.

    Can a corporation behave authentically - can it be flawed like its readership - both "good" and "bad" at the same time.

    It seems to me that what differentiates one magazine from another is its soul - the number of of its paradoxes and anomolies.

    In a sence, I see the responce to Bills posts ironique. People want a magazine with soul but can't handle what this might really mean.

    By the way, I've read Bills Post a couple of times. I don't read a conspiracy or a person who has done bad. I read someone unskillfully standing up for life.



  • dave

    Iain, By all accounts I have read, the only emotional outburst was from the originator of this drivel. Most others have simply commented on Mr. Breen's lack of tolerance for other points of view and the abuse of his public microphone in pressing his view.

    Separately, it was mainly the middle spectrum of voters, not the "fundamentalist right" that put Mr. Bush back into office. The rest of the world will just have to change its distorted view that bible-thumpers are the cause of this outcome.

    Frankly, there is no world-view... and I could care less about the morally bankrupt French who were bought, or the Germans who have no moral authority to challenge anyone on the world stage. The U.K. has been a staunch ally and I certainly would expect the U.S. to do everything in its power to aid that country in a time of need.

    The Bush doctrine that you are either with us or against us is pretty straightforward and certainly will cause angst for politicians who like to have it both ways. We have seen the true colors of so-called allies and I think the American people understand how to put world commentary in perspective in this light.

    If you face attacks in Europe, it will be because you allowed the problem to continue unchecked. Face the fact that Islamic fundamentalism is not nationalistic in its fervor and is a disease that has flourished due to WORLD failure to address the underlying causes throughout the middle east. Now it has spread and infects every nation. Like it or not Bush is directly addressing the source... I am not a geopolitical expert, but I expect that conflict with other states in this region is inevitable...the Islamic pandora's box of Holy War is open. How do we close it? Not by appeasement.

  • Bump Engrind

    The worse you treat a person, the more engaged they become with you? In my day, that was what we called a fist fight. No thank you, sirs.

  • Don


    Where is Captain Courageous (Bill Breen)? First he lobs a verbal hand grenade at your readers, then goes into hiding. Why isn't he defending his position? One would think that if he had the courage of his convictions he would join the debate and defend his position.
    Sadly, John, Bill Breen has spilled the milk and left you to mop up the mess.
    Oh well, so much for Breen's profile in courage.

  • Iain Bennett

    This, coming from a European and a public sector employee to boot, will probably only pour petrol (or 'gasoline') on the flames, but living in London I feel both (a) that we are more likely than either 'red' or 'blue' states to be the recipients of the next terrorist atrocity and (b) that this spat reinforces my feeling, widely held in the world outside the USA, that America's fundamentalist right cannot take critism nor respond in a measured way to it. Now that's a truly scary thought for the next four years for the whole world.

  • Dave Orsborn

    It appears that John has turned on an "auto-reply" for his responses. :) I guess that FC doesn't care to have a real dialogue.

  • John A. Byrne

    Fire Bill Breen? He's a terrifically talented journalist, a smart thinker and editor, and a true Fast Company veteran, someone who has invested his heart and soul in the magazine since its very beginning. I love Bill. I can apologize to any reader who was offended by Bill's comments, but I also want to encourage all my writers and editors as well as all of our readers to openly express their opinions, even if their views are provocative, controversial, or just plain wrong-headed.

  • dave

    One other note to all of the companies who see blogs as a great new tool for marketing and customer interaction. You are witnessing first-hand the potential danger. In this case there is no liability...but a diatribe that rants on subjects of race, religion, or other sensitive areas could be devastating... Your brand umbrella stretches over all manner of potentially damaging viewpoints among employees, partners and customers... be sure to have a blogmaster that reviews all content for problematic posts.

    Question for FC. Was such a review process in place at the time of Bill's post?


  • dave

    Fire Bill? Of course not. That would imply that there are consequences to actions.

    Here is where the red and blue collide.

    Personal responsibility is a key differentiator of the two camps.

    In context of respected brands, Bill, as a senior/trusted FC sub-brand, has done more harm than a young/exciting reporter with no track record would have.

    1. At his level he should have known better. He knew what he was doing... and if this were done intentionally as a stunt by management to provoke excitement (which now seems plausible) then shame on all of you.

    2. This provides exactly the wrong message to all of your other young (probably liberal leaning) staff. It does not teach them that the customer comes first. Rather it says personal beliefs come first. In the liberal group of staff, Bill takes on a heroic stance...the "man" who spoke out. So either you have just loosened your control over discourse, or you've created a double standard for staff by forbidding such future action while allowing Bill to escape the public apology that is due.

    3. Yes Bill has the RIGHT to say what he wants. God Bless this country for delivering that principle every day. Unfortunately we have no term limit on Bill and we cannot vote him out of his position...so your lack of public action to make Bill personally responsible, not for holding his views, but from venting them publicly in an insulting fashion, makes you a co-insultor. Sorry John, but you have got to act in a non-partisan fashion. Your simple shrug-off "I'm happy to apologize to readers who were offended" rings hollow.

    Frankly, I am beginning to believe this was done in a concerted effort to amp up attention to FC. You are struggling to be relevant. You don't have the long-standing history/respect of other publications, so your only play is on the fringe of viwpoint and controversy is a great tool to create magnetism for the 55 mil blue staters out there.

    Back to branding. Focus is a key. A brand is a promise. What exactly is that promise to readers who were not just offended (as if they were highly sensitive, emotional creatures), but rather blatantly assaulted by your brand? This is the promise of John Byrne: I want all my writers and editors...to feel free to express their opinions, however provocative, controversial, or even wrong-headed they may be.

    The Stanford study focused on a mistake and the subsequent impact on a brand. This is a very different situation...persecution of readers for their beliefs. Bill as a brand is dead for me. FC has always been a kind of marginal skim that was as relevant as the key people interviewed in features... it never meant much from an editorial point of view. Now for me it never will...worse than not subscribing, I just don't respect the brand at all after this episode.