Responding To A Crisis – Learning From Brand Attacks


A stand-off between a world-famous consumer brand and a highly influential NGO made the media headlines: US-based Yum Brands Inc (owner of the the KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut brands) has been attacked by Greenpeace for their use of paper from Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) in a very high-profile campaign.

Greenpeace activists protested at Yum’s Louisville headquarters in the US, hanging a large banner from the building in response to what they claim are KFC’s destructive practices to rain forests. The banner showed a picture of a tiger and read, “KFC Stop Trashing My Home”. At the same time, Orangutan-clad protesters were positioned outside of KFCs worldwide (accompanied photo is from China), and a website and a video were launched – aimed at netizens to spread virally across the internet. The website currently shows just under 40,000 ‘shares’ – but I’d be surprise if it wasn’t at least 10 – if not 100 times that, as the website doesn’t count e-sharing on Facebook, twitter etc.

Campaigns like these do a lot of damage – but there are a number of actions brands and their suppliers can take to minimise this – or even avoid a scandal in the first place:

Respond to attacks proactively

When Greenpeace went after Nestlé and Golden Agri Resources two years ago, investors and customers went running for the hills. However, both companies stopped their initially defensive strategies and came up with an innovative framework for addressing the points of criticism. No doubt this has been an expensive and remains a challenging strategy – but today both companies appear to be in the good books  of Greenpeace (see update here) – and now have the support of both commercial and non-commercial stakeholders.

The Body Shop had a similar challenge back in 2004, when Greenpeace released the Toxic Valentine Report which attacked hazardous chemicals usage in the perfumes of major brands. However, a few years later, after The Body Shop had released a detailed chemicals policy and phase-out strategy, Greenpeace highlighted The Body Shop’s progress in a follow-up report.

Don’t be defensive

The learning from such cases is that attacks can be prevented, and that even after the damage is done, robust engagement and responsiveness to criticisms can turn the situation around.

Unfortunately, the reported responses from both Yum and AP have been very brief – and bordering on defensive:

Yum response: ‘The fact is that 60 percent of paper products we purchase are sourced from sustainable forests, and suppliers are moving toward 100 percent’

APP’s response: ‘APP deplores this distortion of the facts by Greenpeace. We are asking that Greenpeace stops portraying Indonesia and its leading companies as the villains in the fight against climate change at a time when our government, APP and the rest of Indonesian society are making huge efforts to preserve our rainforests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially over the rest of this decade

I doubt that these statements help the companies involved. Defensiveness gets you nowhere in a campaign like this.

Address supply chain risk

A responsible company knows its risk and will have mapped out out the supply chain for key raw materials. On the Greenpeace page dedicated to the position of Macdonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, Krispy Kreme and others, McDonald’s is treated very leniently. The company which is often a favourite target of NGOs appear to have learned their lesson and DOES have a responsible sourcing policy and that they HAVE ALREADY excluded purchasing from APP.

Likewise, in 2010, leading environmental activist George Monbiot praised Tesco for delisting APP as a supplier. At that point, any company buying from APP should have considered their options and at a minimum started engaging

Is delisting problematic suppliers always warranted – absolutely not! NGOs are often wrong, and constructive engagement is crucial to prevent misunderstandings.  But being aware of the risk and addressing improvements robustly enough to justify continued business most certainly should be in place.

Attacks cannot be entirely prevented – even with the best and most forward-looking issues management. But brands and suppliers can go a long way in preventing such attack through in-depth engagement with key NGOs and proactive understanding of supply chain risks.


The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.



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