Recently Skittles has seen a huge jump in profits, all because it happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Trayvon Martin, the teenager killed by a crime watch volunteer in Sanford, FL, had on a hoody and only a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea on him at the time he was shot. As a result, those protesting his death have attached new meanings to these items, elevating his hoody and Skittles to the level of symbols. These symbols have become part of Trayvon’s identity and the identity of the movement used to protest the injustice of his death. Especially Skittles, which have been stuffed into T-shirt orders, resold to raise money for the family, handed out at rallies and sent and piled up as symbols of protest. Brands elevated to the status of symbols can take two paths. Either they receive positive brand equity, elevating them to iconic brand status, or negative brand equity because of negative press attention, recalls, etc. In this case, the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death have brought negative brand equity on Skittles. Kim Severson notes that on Twitter, people suggest that Wrigley is profiting greatly and should donate money made since his death to the family or causes helping with racial reconciliation in underprivileged communities http://nyti.ms/HzOrbC. Others say that people should boycott the candy until the company gets more involved.
Whenever a brand takes on an identity that is larger than itself it becomes a sticky situation and a good lesson in crisis management. Stephanie Childs, former crisis manager for ConAgra Foods, and others say the company stands to take a hit however it responds. If Wrigley donates, others will claim they did not donate enough money. If they speak publicly, they will be criticized for capitalizing on it. For now, Wrigley has taken a neutral response. Their statement mentions they are sorry for the family’s loss, respect the family’s privacy, and decline to get involved or comment further as they would never wish their actions to be seen as an attempt of commercial gain following this tragedy. A smart move considering that a crisis in today’s media fares much better than in the days of traditional media. Today, fiascos like these are merely a flash in the pan.
PR experts have three reasons for this, and according to Francesco Guerrera they are “the shiny object,” “the loyalty issue,” and “the lack of choice” http://on.wsj.com/HyZfr2. The first has to do with shorter attention spans that prevail today. Investing and consumer publics move on faster than traditional media so there is little impact on the brand’s bottom line. Next, customer loyalty helps dispel negative attitudes about the brand and restore positive brand equity. The last, lack of choice, is about a lack of alternatives. Other related companies are usually facing similar issues, so often there is no better choice out there. If it were a bigger crisis, this would be where a rebranding along the lines of Burberry’s would come into play. Burberry softened and lessened their iconic pattern when it became trendy among gangs. Granted, that’s a more serious crisis and a worse comparison to be made than what Skittles faces in this case. Profits and reputation may take a hit, but it will be quite minimal and Skittles should bounce back fast. After a while, Skittles’ brand identity association with this event will not be its primary identifying factor. In some cases it’s better to do nothing at all. Skittles has played it smart from the start and, because of that, they will reach the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow and come out alright on the other side.