Can You Save A Damaged Brand?


Business owners share a common goal. We want our babies to grow up and be brands. We want to be memorable and known. We dream of loyal customers and Google authority. But what happens when your brand isn’t positive? When it’s based not on the quality of your product, but on your failures and history of being an idiot? Can a bad brand be turned around or are you destined to wear your A for asshat forever?

Four years ago this summer, Dell Hell was set on fire when Jeff Jarvis blogged about an unfortunate experience he had with Dell and accomplished what all good bloggers hope to do – he unified and empowered a sect of people. Unfortunately for Dell, the group he empowered were disgruntled Dell customers from across the globe who were tired of being ignored.

You see, before Dell was a social media success, they had a policy of “look, don’t touch” for blogs and forums. While conversations were monitored, they were never responded to or publicly addressed. Blogs were seen as “unnecessary”. So was the conversation, the complaints and the customers. And with Jeff’s help and encouragement, Dell customers started getting louder.

As the fires grew bigger, Dell continued to publicly ignore what was happening. They ignored bloggers. They closed support forums. They closed their eyes and cupped their hands over their ears as the brand of Dell began to take shape in Google. And it wasn’t pretty. Google was not their friend. Google was the bathroom wall revealing all their dirty little secrets. Before they knew it, the term dell’d had been coined to represent bad customer service and sales quickly dropped. The brand had been scarred.

We talk a lot about brands. About how you need one, how powerful they are and how Google and brands are a match made in heaven. But not all brands form because of something good. Some brands are based around our mess-ups and threaten to haunt us forever. Some of it can be healed with a small dose of online reputation management. But that often just gets rid of the evidence, not the sour taste people have in their mouth.

To change a bad brand association, you have to do what Dell did.

Arrows and blocks

Stop Being An Ass Hat

Whatever you did, are doing, or are allowing to happen, stop. In Dell’s case, they had to stop ignoring their customers’ cries and pretending like blogs and forums were beneath them. They had to prove that they really did care and that they were willing to make things right. They had to learn and embrace the five tenants of marketing (which I just semi made up).

  1. Your customers are the most powerful marketers money can buy. Only you can’t buy their affection.
  2. Customers are connected. When you lose one, you lose their friends. And on the Internet, friends span.
  3. Every employee who responds to a customer is acting on behalf of the company, knowingly or not. The angry words spouted by a summer intern, may as well come from the CEO.
  4. Refusing to “touch” blogs or social media is at your own detriment.
  5. Your customers will never forget, but they might forgive. If you deserve it.


Track your brand mentions and go where the conversation is. When you get there, shut up. Don’t say anything. Just listen. And when you’re done listening, shut up and listen harder.

Only after you’ve been beaten over the head with how wrong you really were and it’s finally sinking in, are you allowed to get in there and apologize. Otherwise you run the risk of doing even more damage. When you enter the conversation, get on your knees and grovel. Reach out to the leaders of the conversation and ask them to help you make it right. Ask them to teach you how to be better. Show them you want to change and you need their to help to do it. Find a way to empower and unify your people in a brand new way. Right now they’re feeling alienated and let down. You need to give them something else to come together for – something other than what a jerk you are. This will be the most important step of fixing your brand, so it’s imperative you take the time to identify what they need from you and then do whatever you can to offer it.  Not for them, but for yourself.

If you’re genuine about your efforts, they’ll welcome you with open arms.  If they can smell your desperation and stress of money lost, they’ll happily watch you drown.

Share your good deed

Create your social media plan for how you’re going to make things right and then get to work on it.  And while you’re doing it, keep the community in the loop. Constantly ask them for advice on how you’re doing and make them part of your rebranding efforts.  If you do that, you’ll not only impress them with how hard you’re working to make amends, but they’ll be so proud of you they’ll share it with their friends. The same friends you alienated that span the Internet. Get that positive word of mouth going to help block out some of the past noise.

For Dell, making right and reconnecting meant creating a cross-platform community that included a network of blogs, numerous social media accounts, a huge small business outreach center, and more. They entered every social space on the planet, identified themselves as a leader, and made money doing it. They shared everything they did with a community that was waiting on the edge of their seat for it.

Hope for the best

To some degree, it’s up to the community to re-embrace you and allow you to make amends and start over. However, you can help that to happen with your actions.  The more genuine, apologetic and transparent you are, the better chance you’re going to have getting people to welcome you back. As harsh as the Internet can be, people want good businesses to succeed.  They like success stories and companies that can come back from the grave. It gives them hope for themselves.

As bad as Dell blew it early on, they were able to make up for it. They’ve shown that they’re listening, that they get it and that they can be trusted.  Because they were truly apologetic, they were welcomed back and the sour aftertaste that most associated with Dell is gone. It hasn’t been forgotten, but it has (for the most part) been forgiven.

Today, Dell is known as one of the smartest big brands in social media because they learned, took responsibility and reformed. They’re proof that bad brands can be saved if they’re willing to make amends. If they can do it, so can you.

Your Comments

  • Charlene Burke

    So the lesson here is – don’t wait to fix it when it breaks, pay attention and publicly respond to customers immediately. Dell survived because they had the money to invest in technology and people. Most of us don’t have that kind of money, so should take heed with this post and apply preventative steps by communicating with our customers.

    Great post. I can only hope that those needing to read this post actually do and actually put this into practice. For 25+ years my customers have loved me – when I worked for someone else and now that I am self-employed and its because I pay attention and respond. Especially now that I am developing a brand do I want to keep on top of their requests for communication.

    Keep up the good work!

  • James

    First off, great post!

    Dell have definitely improved their internet facing image, but their customer service still sucks in a bad way. So while their shoddy customer service acted as a catalyst, it seems like it was their refusal to join the conversation that really hurt their brand. As soon as they boarded the social media express, things started to look a lot rosier.
    It almost feels like they cheated; their customers are still getting screwed but because they aren’t flagrantly ignoring us, we dont care so much.

  • Muthu

    nice post. I feel, the hardest part, is to accept the mistakes. When something goes negative, we find it hard to accept the reality. If we are open to accept, then taking corrective measure shouldn’t be that difficult.

  • Lisa Barone

    Charlene: That’s an excellent point. Dell was lucky that they were able to invest in their community after the fact because they had the dollars to do so. Not every company will have that luxury (though hopefully you won’t have that large a hole either ;) ). Responding early and often really is the best way to keep your customers on your side and ward off any reputation management or brand issues. Thanks for the comment!

    James: Have you tried reaching out to any of the Dell folks on Twitter, blogs or elsewhere in the community? If you have and they’re still ignoring people, then that’s no good. Personally, I’ve been really impressed with how out there they’ve been and what they’re offering customers. The small business resource center they have is absolutely out of this world. But if they’re not putting in face time for real customer service complaints — you may want to call them out on that.

    Muthu: Admitting you were wrong is always the hardest part. In business and life. :)

  • James

    I have been a little unfair to Dell (they started it!), Dell’s online support is pretty good, but offline support has not improved all that much in the last few years and when your computer dies in dramatic fashion, you often have no choice but to go low tech and call the customer support centre. From there it feels like the same old Dell, hours of negotiation with the supervisors supervisor just to be awarded the rights you are guaranteed as a consumer, swiftly followed by the engineers not showing up with the right parts or not showing up at all.

    This is the crux of my issue with Dell – they are good online, where they are terrified of a repeat of the backlash that nearly killed their business, but offline, when they are dealing with the luddites -aka Mom and Dad – who think a twitter is a rare form of sparrow and a blog is something requiring minor surgery, they are almost as bad as they ever were. I say almost because I haven’t heard about one of their guys hanging up on a customer recently (it’s been 5 years and I’m still not over it).

  • Phil M.

    Yes, Dell has done a lot in social media, but that hardly means the brand is saved. Just that they’ve tapped into the social media swoon and thereby stopped the feeding frenzy. Just because a company “gets it” doesn’t mean they’re well-managed or have overall coherence in their marketing infrastructure.

    They still have problems with getting products to market on time, no clear brand identity and other much more serious and presssing operational and strategic issues than whether bloggermouths approve of their Twitter strategy.

    Social media is one of many elements of marketing, branding and customer service.

  • RichardatDell

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for the post and review of history. Couple things that may simply be nuances but I think are worth noting:

    1. During the “dont touch” period we believed that our interactions and involvement with customers on the Dell forums was important…..we were not ignoring all forums nor do I recall shutting forums down. I understand the bigger issue you point out, but to suggest we were not listening or involved anywhere is a misnomer…..however, you are correct to suggest not as broadly as it likely should have been.

    2. Since your post included lots of links to the issues we confronted, I think it is worth sharing some links that offer perspectives about Dell’s journey as we made strides to listen, learn, and engage online. These are links I think are informative for those wanting to better understand the journey (not just the outcome) for a large company. For example:
    – Jeff Jarvis wrote this piece for BusinessWeek:
    – Dell’s Chief Blogger, Lionel Menchaca outlined how we were learning and finding our way as the Dell blog launched

    James, you are correct, we are not perfect…and we continue to make strides (both online and offline). There is no easy fix to some issues, but as Michael Dell often notes we can constantly listen learn and improve and make our business a better one — off and online. You might find this three part series of interest too:
    If you google other large tech companies and service issues, you will see the numbers are as large or larger than ours — and that is no excuse, it is just an area you have to continually work to improve. We are.

    James, if you are on Twitter DM me your service code # and Ill look into things….or Lisa can give you my email as believe she has access to both our emails.

    Phil M, Interesting perspective and I appreciate your view. Rather than engage today, think I will let you know I hear you and am taking your points of view into consideration, as well as sharing with others in the business.

    Again, thanks for the commentary here.

  • Mark Odom

    Well, I am glad there is a comment section. Dells downward spiral was felt by me personally and the best I can tell it started in late 2001. Most people were still placing there faith in Dell’s customer service as I was. My companies purchased only about 30 Dells over a 5 year period and I thought that was decent, purchasing as many as 5 at the time.

    When we had problems in 2003 or so their csr stated that “That was not alot of computers” then had a nice follow up to say, “we dont care how many computers you have purchased”.

    I was just tired of getting shoved to India for Tech help. Its not the India problem it is the Americans speak American and India just 99% of the time do not have the articulation to understand the problems outside of their bookworm world Dell provided them.

    Dell just became whores and that is said with love and all due respect. I stopped buying Dells altogether and moved to the Box store enviroment. If service is gonna be bad then buy the cheapest crap u can buy and throw it away when it breaks. Dont reformat, dont fix, backup and throw away.

    I long await the day that their is a computer company that can charge a good price and care enough about its customers to take care of them in the USA after the sale!!!

    WHHeeeeeewww, I am glad I got that off my chest.

  • Brennan

    Great tips Lisa. I don’t think companies do enough listening in reputation management as they should, many see a conversation and attack it with usually negative affects that enrage the customer. If a company listens and figures out the whole story they will be able to act more efficiently and also prepare a follow-up just in-case. Also a huge tip I saw was not thinking blogs and forums are below you because one popular blog post or forum discussion can haunt a company for years.