Double-reverse brand whiplash hits Arizona Iced Tea: a lesson in crisis

Our consumer landscape is dotted by brands that invite us to immerse ourselves in the tastes, sights, sounds, smells and cultures of particular locations, which I suppose are deemed romantic or in some way aspirational. Like the exotic Australian adventure of Outback Steakhouse. A big favorite here in Colorado, of course, is Old Chicago. And a slew of Texas-themed restaurants, like Lone Star, suggests that consumers associate that state with an authentic steak experience.

As you probably know, though, Old Chicago isn’t from Chicago. It’s part of the Rock Bottom Restaurant Group, which is based a few hundred yards from where I used to live in Louisville, Colorado, and the store on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder was the first in the chain. Outback is headquartered in Tampa. Lone Star got its start in North Carolina, with the first store opening in my hometown of Winston-Salem in 1989. Buffalo Wild Wings? Columbus. You probably get the idea, but there’s more. Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken? Atlanta. Texas Roadhouse – Louisville, Kentucky. Longhorn Steakhouse – Orlando. Boston Market – Golden, Colorado. Uno Chicago Pizza – Boston. Mimi’s (Louisiana) Cafe – Irvine. And so on.

All of which is fine. Brands that provide a product or service we value, and that allow us to “visit” another place, if only vicariously, succeed for a reason. And this isn’t a grad seminar on postmodernism, so I see no point in a mind-numbing screed on authenticity.

A recent case involving such a brand, though, has me thinking about this branding strategy in new ways. You probably noted the flare-ups surrounding Arizona’s new immigration law, which sparked all kinds of outrage and backlash against the state, including several travel and product boycotts. One related action – a proposed boycott of Arizona Iced Tea. The problem, from a brand, PR and crisis perspective? Take a guess.

Opponents of Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law are calling for a boycott of the state’s products – including the popular Arizona Iced Tea.The problem: Arizona Iced Tea is actually brewed in New York.

Online, misguided tea fans vowed to switch to Lipton or Snapple.

“Dear Arizona: If you don’t change your immigration policy, I will have to stop drinking your enjoyable brand of iced tea,” Twittered Jody Beth in Los Angeles.

“It is the drink of fascists,” wrote Travis Nichols in Chicago.

So what are the lessons here for the branding and communications professional? If you’re developing a brand for a consumer product or a restaurant, is it really reasonable or prudent to worry about controversies that might wander in from this far afield? If you find yourself charged with crisis planning for said brand, is it financially responsible to spend client dollars preparing for events this unlikely?

I don’t know that you could let a series of events this improbable derail your branding efforts. If you were thinking of launching Bob’s Old North Dakota Steakhouse, you’d be foolish to waste a lot of energy worrying about impact to the brand if the state house in Bismarck decided to invade Manitoba.

But what about crisis? Do you factor scenarios this wild into your planning? (Arizona Iced Tea certainly didn’t: “The company did not return messages asking if they planned to set the public straight.”)

It’s a predicament unlike anything I’ve come across before. You can’t very well release a statement saying “hey, we have nothing to do with Arizona,” can you? Arizona is your brand, and distancing yourself from the state’s overall image, especially if you handle it poorly, corrodes the equity of that brand. To make matters worse, the whole issue is a powderkeg politically, and no matter what you say, you risk alienating consumers who are invested in one side of the issue or the other.

Any good PR firm has its own strategy for determining how deep into the weeds they should plan, and when push comes to shove many of these approaches (including mine) are customized variations on time-tested core principles.

For me, the variables are significance – a function of probability and impact – and resources. I was a competitive debater in high school and college, and in most rounds you have the affirmative arguing that X is good, the negative arguing that X is bad, and the judge needing to figure out how to weigh the claims against each other. Say the affirmative demonstrates that the proposed policy is very likely to save the lives of 20,000 children. The negative counters that the financial impact will result in elimination of other programs and this could lead to the deaths of 100,000 elderly citizens.

How you get at a scale that works requires you to assess the probability of each outcome. Say you conclude that the affirmative program is 80% likely to work (or likely to work at 80% efficacy). Your significance is 80% times impact – in this case, the lives involved. Now do the same thing for the negative claim about the elderly. (Then, if you like your ethical quagmires deep and sticky, just wait a few seconds for the inevitable arguments about the relative quality of life – but that’s just muddying waters that are already pretty murky).

In evaluating crisis scenarios, we all consider events that are high and low likelihood, high and low significance. Succession is potentially high/high. Aliens land and vandalize a drink machine – low/low. These are easy. It’s the low/high category that causes problems for the crisis planner on a budget – the CEO defrauds the company and runs for the border, for instance – and this is the terrain where Arizona Iced Tea found itself. (Although at this stage of the game, it doesn’t look like the damage is terribly significant – that may not have been clear when the protest first broke, though.)

So you brainstorm. Let your imaginations run wild. Score and rank. In theory you now have an orderly list of what can happen, with significance, however you choose to articulate it, being a metric that helps you sort out your strategy. Here’s where resources enter in. You have a budget that represents a line through your list. Above the line, you prep for it. Below, you hope for the best.

My best guess is that the Arizona Iced Tea crisis budget drew the line well to the north of “outraged protests against the state of Arizona’s new immigration law.”

C’est la vie.

I obviously don’t have any definitive answers here. As I say, this is something that’s unlike any issues I’ve encountered before. Still, it struck me as a fascinating case, and one that offered a chance to revisit one of my favorite corporate communications topics. I’d be interested in hearing what my colleagues have to say, especially if you’ve dealt with something similar in your career.

Meanwhile, maybe I’ll head down to Old Chicago after work and think about it some more over a nice Colorado-crafted Belgian beer…

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