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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

LISTEN UP. Adopting a positive approach to brand behavior, McNabb says, brands do eventually listen to consumers. “All brands are things made of humans, so when they are heavily criticized by consumers, they will typically change their behavior,” he says.

“If you’re selling stuff, people must be happy to buy it. If McDonald’s is unhealthy, it will move to become healthier. What’s exciting about social media and blogs and the like is that today, consumers have a megaphone; they can much more effectively say what they believe and think.”

Regionally, those brands that court the most controversy include multinational corporations such as Starbucks and Coca-Cola, often for their reported support of Israel, a known enemy of the Arab world for its illegal occupation of parts of Palestine. (Despite repeated requests, Coca-Cola was not available for comment.)

While the brands generate impassioned and harsh reactions from consumers who boycott their products, Al-Samarrai says passionate reactions generally don’t amount to much.

“I think the issue is – and I’ve heard this argument many times – if consumers are to boycott Starbucks, for example, successfully, are they damaging Starbucks itself, or are they damaging the local holding company that runs it in Arab countries, and therefore putting people out of jobs?” he says. “It’s a moral judgment.”

Presumably that’s what McDonald’s wants to emphasize in a “10 facts about McDonald’s” leaflet it makes available in its UAE stores. The single-sheet flier mentions the food, addressing halal and nutritional concerns, but it begins with: “Fact one: McDonald’s Corporation is a publicly held company owned by millions of people around the world.”

Fact two is: “McDonald’s Corporation is a strictly commercial company that does not interfere or support any political or religious act.”

And in case an activist still isn’t convinced he should put down his placard, fact four is: “McDonald’s UAE is a 100 percent Emirati company and its relationship with McDonald’s Corporation is merely restricted to permitting the use of the brand and offering training and development.”

Similarly, van Bochove says it’s important to explain to consumers that Starbucks coffee houses are mostly operated by local holding companies in the Middle East, by groups such as Al Shaya.

“We source locally as much as possible,” he says. “We are investing in areas that we think are important, and we have to do more to make it clear that we are part of the community by stepping up our efforts for community involvement on issues we think are important, such as culture, education, and environment.”

McNabb says brands we love to hate suffer from a nagging problem, one that consumers won’t see being resolved. The problem is that corporations can no longer get away with the things they may have previously gotten away with.

“Corporations will behave badly where they believe they are not open to scrutiny,” he says.

Communicate magazine

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