The mercury is rising and Texas is heading into summer without any ice cream. No, we won’t get Ben and Jerry’s. That’s not our brand. Our brand is Blue Bell and we don’t have any, thanks to an outbreak of Listeria.
Not to be flippant about the seriousness of the situation—many people fell seriously, some fatally, ill with the strong strain of foodborne bacteria—it’s quite the opposite:
How in the world do this many people care so much about a brand that made people sick? Why does Blue Bell enjoy such brand loyalty even though they’ve had issues with this EXACT problem since 2013?
Every time a large company experiences a public crisis they have an opportunity to make it right or make a complete mess of the situation. Time will tell what happens to Texas’ most favorite maker of ice cream and memories, but one thing’s for sure: We can learn a whole lot about PR from what has happened. Here are three PR lessons we’ve gleaned from Blue Bell’s national recall.
1. Do It Yourself
There’s a huge difference between a voluntary recall and a mandatory recall. While many argue that they should have known sooner, Blue Bell did the right thing by pulling ALL of their products from stores because they couldn’t ensure they were safe. If the FDA had to do that for them, there might not be as much hullabaloo from fans about supporting the brand.
Own your mistakes and right your wrongs—before someone does it for you.
2. Build an Army
In Texas, Blue Bell is the treat of choice for family reunions, church BBQs and everything in between. If you’re celebrating, you’re doing so with a scoop of Homemade Vanilla on your apple pie.
When the company announced their recall, people LOST THEIR MINDS. Posts on Facebook underscored the humorous frustration folks in the South had when their beloved Blue Bell went missing.
People also took to the streets and their front lawns with protest signs, like the “Come and Take It” one pictured above. They were up in arms and ready to defend the company to anyone who criticized their handling of the situation—heck, even Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale jumped into the fray.
Blue Bell has a loyal army of fans, one they’ve built through years of outreach—which brings us to lesson three…
3. No Deposits, No Return
A brand is like a bank account. If you make a lot of “goodwill” deposits, you’ll have plenty in the bank when you have to make a withdrawal. Blue Bell has made a lot of deposits over the years.
They’ve donated their product to charity events and sponsored worthy causes—the good, old-fashioned form of CSR that existed before that was a word. They have a legacy of over 100 years of service to the community and have created many warm, fuzzy moments with the people that buy their product.
This is the reason people are wearing shirts, putting out yard signs and talking to the media about how they can’t wait until their favorite flavors return to shelves. Can you imagine anyone doing that for The Gap or Wells Fargo? Didn’t think so.
For companies today, it’s not enough to be responsive in the midst of a crisis. It’s about building a community before the (BLEEP) hits the fan and doing the right thing when everything goes sideways. Maybe Blue Bell will recover from this, maybe they won’t, but we can all use these PR lessons to plan better for next time.
*That gorgeous photo at the top? That’s from Jonny Hunter/Creative Commons.