Mays Business School, August 31st, 2015
Blue Bell did three things right as a business of integrity.
To begin with, I quote what one of my best friends recently posted to Facebook: “When it is back on the shelves, I’m going to eat my body weight in Blue Bell!” I start with that reaction because it is indicative of the deep passion for Blue Bell that is playing a big part in their ability to recover from a disaster on a scale that would have destroyed many businesses. Even with such strong brand devotion (“Blue Bell is part of my family”), a company facing a recall that involves consumer harm has a very short period of time to make some key decisions – and they have to get them right.
First, with the speed with which information spreads today – and consumers who increasingly value authenticity – a firm cannot appear as if they are trying to hide anything. Research on many product recalls suggests that you have to acknowledge the scale of the problem, accept responsibility and declare the specific actions you will take to make it right for those harmed and to make sure that the problem does not reoccur. Blue Bell was, for the most part, very transparent – they communicated through traditional advertising channels, but also worked with retail partners to post signs on the ice cream shelves that explained, apologized sincerely, and announced steps to continue to investigate the sources and to fix the problem.
Second, as the full scale of the problem becomes clear, it becomes critical to make sure that the response adapts and is big enough to matter. In my recollection, there were a few waves in which it became clearer that the problem was not isolated to just a small niche of product lines or one machine in one plant. Although there was some negative reaction among consumers and business writers as the problem seemed to continue to grow for a period, I thought Blue Bell reacted with a level of candor that is pretty rare. But it was interesting to me that the majority customer opinion seemed to be one of “hoping an old friend would quickly get well” instead of wondering what else the firm might be hiding. This only happens if customers are devoted to the brand (beyond simple positive feelings) and if they have a high level of trust in the integrity of the firm and its management. Researchers refer to these factors as a firm having high “social capital.” Blue Bell will still have to get the “re-launch” right, as I’m guessing there will be some supply shortages—they will have the chance to hit the right tone of expressing appreciation to customers while re-emphasizing their commitment to product safety and quality.
Finally, I think financial partners and channel partners recognized that Blue Bell’s social capital would, more likely than not, result in customers welcoming Blue Bell back rather than being afraid to resume using the product. So these partners, who faced tough decisions of their own, appear to have recognized the value in remaining committed to Blue Bell and helping the beloved brand regain their footing in the marketplace.
Mark B. Houston is department head and professor of marketing at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, as well as the inaugural Blue Bell Creameries Chair in Business.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org