Issue: Taco Bell handles an E. coli outbreak
Commentary by: David
On December 12, Taco Bell launched a print counter-offensive against the E. coli outbreak that has sickened customers in the Northeast United States, bit deeply into Taco Bell’s business nationwide and made it the butt of late night talk show jokes. As the Associated Press reports:
LOS ANGELES – Taco Bell Corp. launched a newspaper ad blitz and sent its president on a string of media interviews Tuesday to persuade customers that its food is safe â€” even as the cause of the E. coli outbreak linked to the fast-food chain remained a mystery.
In an open letter to customers published in USA Today, The New York Times and other newspapers, Taco Bell President Greg Creed said he would support the creation of a coalition of food suppliers, competitors, government and other experts to explore ways to safeguard the food supply chain and public health.
The executive underscored the safety mantra in media interviews, telling Associated Press Television that he had assured his daughter, a college freshman in New York, and her friends that Taco Bell food is safe.
“I can assure you, I would not tell my daughter that unless I absolutely believed it,â€ Creed said.
Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said the safety issue was not limited to the Mexican-style food chain.
â€œBased on the information we have today … we believe that this issue is not isolated to Taco Bell and that there is more need to ensure a safe food supply from the farm to the table,â€ he said.
This move comes before the FDA has completed its investigation of the E. coli outbreak. Dr. Dean Acheson at the FDA’s center for Food Safety told the Associated press today that lettuce was the most likely culprit (green onions having been incorrectly fingered earlier in the week but later cleared) but that the lettuce had not yet been traced back to its source.
The branding issue here is whether Taco Bell is responding appropriately to this crisis. And, more broadly, how brands ought to react to these types of crises in order to maintain brand loyalty.
On the first issue, we believe that Taco Bell may be getting ahead of itself. This is an unusual problem. As we discuss below the normal mistake that companies thrust into the media spotlight make is that they fail to respond quickly enough. The Internet and the blogosphere in particular has dramatically shortened the news cycle to the point that near-instant response is required to maintain public trust.
Taco Bell’s mistake is to announce that Taco Bell’s are ‘safe to eat in’ before the FDA finishes its investigation. Why? Without knowing the exact culprit for the outbreak (although industry experts point out that the cause is often never pinpointed), Taco Bell cannot give consumers a reasonable reassurance that it will not reoccur. It is true that Taco Bell has extensively tested its food and changed produce suppliers. And it is fair to assume that contaminated produce is responsible for this outbreak. However, until Taco Bell knows the source of the E. coli, the company cannot know if the food preparation process contributed to the spread of bacteria.
This is a slippery slope. For if Taco Bell is correct that it was tainted produce that sickened consumers the sudden PR move can still backfire? Why? Because Taco Bell cannot afford a second incident and if any food handling procedures at the chain make it more likely that future outbreaks will hit Taco Bell than competitors, the chain has sealed its own coffin.
The broader question arising from Taco Bell’s misfortunes is how other companies should respond to an emerging crisis. This advertising blog recently had a chance to speak with two marketers with Earthbound Farms, who were at the center of the spinach contamination crisis earlier this Fall.
These marketers were well educated and prepared for the crisis. They recognized that the Johnson & Johnson/Tylenol case was the classic prototype for successfully handling a tainted product issue. They also knew that Kryptonite had suffered during the ‘break my lock with a Bic pen’ scandal because they did not respond quickly enough to consumer and media concerns. And they had a crisis plan in place before the crisis actually broke. What they did not realize is that even since the Kryptonite incident, the pace of media escalation has quickened considerably. Tainting scandals, particularly those involving public health, do not linger for a week or more on the back pages of newspapers before they become big news. They reach blogs instantly and those blogs are followed by television reporters. This afternoon’s FDA announcement can make CNN or Fox news by prime time.
To respond effectively to a crisis, brands need to have a plan which can be implemented in a matter of hours. It should include the following steps:
- Accept Responsibility – Even if events subsequently prove that the brand was blameless in an outbreak or tainting scandal (think of the finger found in a Wendy’s salad which was planted by a customer, for instance), stonewalling will hurt the brand. It is far easier to act as if it is a problem you’ve created and take responsibility for making it right. If later events prove the brand was blameless, its ethical reaction to the problem will increase brand loyalty. If it was the company’s fault then the brand will retain consumers with its forthright, straighforward acceptance of responsibility.
- Protect the Consumer – Closing restaurants or recalling the product early can limit the damage done to the brand. Stubborn refusal to immediately recall their contact lense solution almost cost Bausch & Lomb its entire ReNu franchise.
- Find the Truth – Getting to the bottom of the problem is critical, even if it is not always possible.
- Prevent a Replay – Tylenol returned to the market not when the person who had adulterated the product was apprehended but when Johnson & Johnson could be sure that another person could not do the same thing. This is the best standard for knowing whether its time to step back into the water, and one that Taco Bell has likely failed.
Unfortunately for many brands, financial pressure makes it hard to live by these standards. When restaurants sit empty or millions of finished products must be destroyed, short-term margins are hit hard. But without this immediate sacrifice, the ultimate price may be paid by the brand.