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Bad vibes

Bad vibes

Why do consumers seemingly love to loathe some brands? And what can businesses do to turn around an evil image? Rania Habib of Communicate magazine tries to find out.

December 1, 2010 4:48 by

Starbucks, the Seattle-based international coffee chain, admits making “a big mistake” in the way it dealt with persistent rumors and criticism that have surrounded the company for years.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has been accused of being an active Zionist, making insensitive comments about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and being a recipient of the Israeli 50th Anniversary Award from the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, a Jewish orthodox organization. The coffee company has also been accused of funding the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). With so many accusations and rumors swirling around Starbucks, Rana Shaheen, corporate social responsibility and communications manager for Starbucks in the Middle East (where the brand is franchised to the Kuwaiti holding company Alshaya Co.), says the company realizes where it went wrong.

REBUKING THE RIDICULOUS. “At the time all these rumors started, management thought if they commented on them, they would be validating them,” Shaheen says. “The management felt that the rumors were absurd and ridiculous, and as a coffee company, we had very limited experience in addressing those types of rumors – imagine being in the coffee business and all of a sudden being faced with political criticism. So all of these factors combined did not help the brand reputation; we fully realize this was a big mistake we made over an eight-year period.”

Starbucks has taken active steps to address the issue, and Shaheen says the coffee company took the decision not to be silent anymore. “We will not just stand by watching our reputation being damaged, and our trust fractured with our loyal customers.”

She says the 2008 Gaza war saw the peak of the boycott for Starbucks, and was a time during which Starbucks stores became the stage for demonstrations. “Our partners in stores were faced with attacks and protests in Lebanon and Jordan, among other places, and we couldn’t take it anymore,” Shaheen says. “Having our partners on the front line of danger warrants a serious response.”

Louay Al-Samarrai, managing director of Active PR, a public relations and marketing communications consultancy, says social media has further changed the way brands must behave. “You need to address a problem and have dialogue, and be as interactive as possible,” he says. “You need to do that from a global and local media perspective, and on a community level. You need to be very active on social media and present your side of the story, and discuss with whoever may have an issue with you. Engagement and total transparency are key.”

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