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I hesitate to even mention it, since I know we’re all miffed about The Oil Spill, some of us, depending on our political leanings, more than others. But I don’t want to talk about politics (after all, we are just getting to know each other). I don’t want to talk about the oil spill, either, except to say it’s tragic. While the cleanup has fueled (pardon the pun) some jobs, it’s cost thousands, too: according to The Daily Finance, as of early June more than 12,000 Louisiana residents had filed for unemployment. Then there’s the spill’s implications on the financial market, where BP’s shares have dropped considerably since April 20. There’ve been talks of a take-over. Heck, there’s just been a whole lot of talk. From a lot of different people. And people – consumers – are angry. Which begs the question: Will they forgive?
Maybe I’m just blogging out loud, but don’t companies – whether they be BP, Toyota or the mom and pop that overcharged you on your last visit – have a responsibility to take responsibility? It’s the only way to keep consumers from jumping ship.
The Oil Spill has dominated so much of the news that smaller (although no less important) consumer issues have been lost in the fray. Chrysler’s recent recall of some 25,000-plus vehicles following complaints of sticky gas pedals didn’t garner nearly as much attention as the Toyota recalls of early 2010. One reason, perhaps, is that companies are learning to deal with disaster head-on. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, speculated in the LA Times: “Clearly, Chrysler and CTS [the manufacturer of the gas pedals] have taken a look at what happened at Toyota and said they don’t want that happening to them.” They’d be fools not to, as the LA Times continues: “In addition to facing more than 200 federal lawsuits over alleged sudden-acceleration problems, Toyota has also seen its market share slide in the U.S.” What is widely considered a public relations debacle on Toyota’s part – and BP is getting hit with insults far worse – is a lesson: consumer awareness is up and scrutiny is in the driver’s seat (this time, the pun’s intended).
Sometimes, when I’m trolling the supermarket isles or considering the message of a new commercial, I imagine the boardrooms where businesses dream up their images. It might sound funny, but I always think of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag the Dog. In the film, Hoffman plays a Hollywood producer hired by the U.S. government to produce a war – “a pageant” replete with theme, song, visuals and celebrity “endorsements” – to distract the American public from a presidential sex scandal. Now, I already said I wasn’t going to get political, and I stand by that. But what’s so humorous about the Wag the Dog concept is this: it’s advertising and marketing. Without a slogan, a catchy jingle and a flashy package, most candy bars look alike. Without cutting-edge design and claims to certain safety features, most cars are the same. And oil, well, I’m pretty sure that for most of us, it’s all the same, too. To make themselves different, businesses give consumers something bigger to believe in, to trust. They make promises and invest in building their brand equity. Those claims should stand the test of time.
Like any relationship, there will be ups and downs; that is a fact of life. What matters more is how businesses deal with those “debacles.” Consumers are like jealous girlfriends – quick to fly off the handle and jump ship. But at the end of the day, whether you’re selling us cough syrup, free-range chicken, cars or something bigger, we simply want to believe – and trust – that you care.