When I saw that one of the lead shows in ABC’s primetime lineup this fall was named PanAm, I got excited. As a consumer I relished a primetime, network viewing option that wasn’t a crime drama or reality show. I even dared to hope that it might have the same intelligent writing and nostalgic qualities as Mad Men.
Then the Facebook posts started. They weren’t totally unexpected, because I am a graduate of Syracuse University. When PanAm flight 103 went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, SU lost 35 students who were returning from a semester abroad. As a result, my friends’ posts were highly charged and peppered with phrases like “seriously?” “unspeakable tragedy,” “desperate for ratings,” “slimebags,” and “boycott.”
This got the marketer in me thinking. Can a single act permanently damage a brand to the point that it will be forever associated with that negative image?
The answer is easier if the company was negligent in some way. After ValuJet violated FAA regulations by transporting hazardous materials in their cargo hold and crashed in the Florida Everglades, it only survived by being absorbed into AirTran. Enron didn’t survive in any form.
But when the brand is the victim, it is a bit harder to predict. Tylenol became a shining example of effective crisis management when it adeptly navigated the Extra Strength Tylenol tampering scandal in 1982.
So what about PanAm? The events of December 1988 were undeniably tragic, yet PanAm was also a victim. Yes, they may have been poorly managed, but did that cause terrorists to target them? I’d suggest the strength of the brand may have actually played a bigger role. Yet, if my Facebook friends are any indication, the PanAm brand will be forever tarnished. One event negated more than 60 years of positive brand equity. PanAm stopped flying in 1991, just three years after the Lockerbie tragedy.
To marketers, this serves as a reminder to:
- Always have a top-notch crisis management plan in place
- Never underestimate the depth of emotion customers feel about your brand
- Recognize that emotions run particularly deep among those most closely affected by a tragedy – even years later
But PanAm’s story also frightens marketers like me, because it means that there is always a risk that a brand will be damaged due to circumstances beyond its control, even if that brand is a cultural icon.
While PanAm’s association with the glory days of air travel is undeniable, I think ABC underestimated the equally negative associations that the name PanAm holds for many. They had a choice in what to name their new program. A different – perhaps even fictional – airline name probably would have been a better choice. Many brands will never be afforded the same luxury.
- Pamela J. Alvord, EVP Managing Director of Strategy & Operations