In a previous edition of The Filter, we presented the concept that Brand and The Brand are two different entities. We defined Brand as “the accumulation of all of a company’s actions to make something meaningful and memorable” and we defined The Brand as “the look and feel of a company.” Though both concepts are different, their similarity lies in their shared indefensibility; there is no guarantee that what exists and means something today will have the same effect tomorrow. The only way for a company to persist or advance is to keep executing and evolving to the best of its ability.

This leads to the idea behind the title of this post: Companies take years to build up their brands, while a single moment can utterly decimate it. Some recent examples:

  • Facebook might be the largest example of a company that has gone to extreme lengths to build its brand over the years, with hundreds of PR and communications professionals on staff. But recent disclosures around foreign political advertising and the Cambridge Analytica scandal have significantly dented the company’s armor.
  • Uber’s reputation continues to deteriorate in the face of numerous scandals. In 2017, the company removed a setting that permitted users to choose whether or not Uber could track their location while using the app, raising concerns about user privacy and surveillance. In turn, a range of other mess ups have led to #DeleteUber campaigns and the resurgence of Lyft in major U.S. markets.
  • Urban Outfitters has faced a number of design controversies, from its Kent State sweatshirt with a blood splatter to its “eat less” or “everyone loves a Jewish girl” shirts.
  • Zara came under fire for a shirt that strongly resembled a concentration camp uniform and another that said “white is the new black.”
  • H&M received flack for its “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt, modeled on a black child.
  • Chipotle is still digging out of the hole it created with its norovirus breakouts in 2015 and 2016, which infected customers around the world and led to hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and endless public ridicule.
  • Nike is struggling to recover from a series of organization setbacks after its boys-club atmosphere entered the limelight, leading to the very public departure of leading executives because of workplace misconduct.
  • Lululemon’s CEO resigned in February 2018 for sexual harassment, but the company’s female clientele began to turn away much earlier. In 2013, after recalling a pair of poorly manufactured yoga pants, the company’s founder stated that they weren’t meant for all women’s body types.
  • Wells Fargo is reeling from endless scandals around improper banking and sales tactics, where it opened fake accounts to inflate sales numbers.
  • American Apparel went bankrupt because of unethical labor policies and an internal sexual harassment scandal that substantiated pre-existing criticism of its racy advertisements (though today, the company is pulling itself up again, rebranding and focusing on digital-only commerce).

Other brands have fallen from favor not in the face of a scandal, but for failing to evolve alongside changing cultural, social and political trends, which diminishes a company’s relevance over time: Juicy Couture became too garish, despite the rise of athleisure and Coach’s C-logo oversaturated the market, lowering consumer interest.

The list goes on and on, and while some of these incidents have left more scars than others, they are proof that Brand is always venerable and constantly in flux. It’s both challenging and frightening to operate a business knowing that so much hard work can be undone in a number of hours. Entire companies and their staffs can suffer from the mistake of a single CEO or high-level executive—one error has the potential to upset Brand, uprooting well-performing employees who were entirely divorced from the scandal, or even victimized by it.

So what does this mean and what can be done? Because Brand is always evolving, companies can’t take anything for granted. The second something bad happens, they need to jump on it and mitigate it as quickly as possible. At this juncture, companies actually have an opportunity to turn something bad into something okay, depending on the response. This can sometimes strengthen Brand, instead of detract from it.

Notably, none of the examples above had anything to do with the look or feel of the company (though some had to do with the look and feel—or taste—of the products). This is an important lesson; how the brand talks and carries itself is often more impactful than aesthetics. While there is rightfully plenty of discussion about Brand as it relates to design and appearance, companies need to pay more attention to the intangible and abstract natures of Brand, knowing that this will have an even bigger influence on a company’s future success.