Sailing through the storm

A look at how well-known brands across businesses have plodded their way through controversies

Illustration by Kishore Das

In one of the large conference rooms at The Lalit in Mumbai back in September 2003, about a dozen people were glued to a large television set. As the Cadbury Dairy Milk logo cut across the screen, there were broad smiles all around and a quick round of handshakes was interspersed with high fives. A new ad campaign for the brand had just received the green signal from the top brass at Cadbury India. The efforts put in by advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) had paid off and the commercial was set to go on air in a week’s time. Typically, for any agency, this period is one that brings with it a whole lot of relief, joy and nervousness. If the client management liked what it saw, it meant the agency had understood its brief well. The question, then, was whether viewers would like it and be motivated enough to buy the product. 

As everyone in the room settled in for dinner, there was no way to predict that a crisis would soon eat its way into Cadbury’s 70% market share. The ad film — created by future blockbuster Vicky Donor director Shoojit Sircar and set to music by director Vishal Bharadwaj — being fawned over that night was on air for barely a day before being pulled off, no traces of it remaining in public memory. Instead, what was all over the news were reports of an unprecedented amount of bars of Dairy Milk — which alone accounted for 30% of the market — turning up with worms in them.

A single phone call from Cadbury India managing director Bharat Puri to O&M creative head Piyush Pandey saying, “We have a problem,” changed the mood at the agency. Over the next nine months, the behaviour of both the company and the agency demonstrated the best possible case study for a brand coming up against a crisis and emerging stronger. And this, despite the fact that the company’s sales took a serious beating, accompanied by a serious loss of reputation to the brand. While Cadbury managed to persevere and soldier through the crisis, others haven’t been as successful. 

Falling flat

Ask Deborah Hileman for examples of mishandled crises and she immediately mentions British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. “It took seven days for the company to stop the leak and there was no communication from its senior management throughout that perio


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