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Brand Defense: Are Your Most Dangerous Saboteurs Outside or Inside Your Organization?

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As enterprises become more global and virtual, many leaders recognize that they must vigorously defend their brand against the threat of saboteurs. But are disgruntled customers and aggressive competitors the biggest threats to brands? Or are intentional or accidental disruptions from within even more dangerous?

Brand reputation is more precarious than ever. Online news and social media can immediately turn a small blunder into a public relations catastrophe, making even the most venerable brands vulnerable to attack. Should your brand defense strategies first target potential saboteurs on the outside? Or those within? 

Here’s the debate:

Defend the brand against external saboteurs. It’s the top priority.
More than ever, disgruntled customers, activists and competitors are using the Internet and other improvised weapons to attack brands.
Protect the brand from internal attacks first.
Where do you think external saboteurs get their ammunition? It’s important that leadership, employees and suppliers understand how they contribute to maintaining a strong brand and how easily they can undermine it.
Our people are loyal. Focus on the external people who are out to hurt you.
Why would senior management or employees do anything to hurt the brand – and risk their livelihood? Better to focus on countering the deliberate attacks that external saboteurs may launch.
Employees can be loyal – and still hurt you.
Many internal attacks result from people who don’t fully consider the consequences of their words and actions. It’s important to make sure all employees, including senior leaders, are well informed and well trained when it comes to brand risks.
Competitors are quick to capitalize on a misstep.
You need to know what angry customers and other outside saboteurs say before your competitors use that information against you. A good defensive strategy must anticipate, pre-empt and mitigate the damage they can inflict.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what’s happening inside your organization.
You’re right – monitoring is important. But don’t limit surveillance to external sources; find ways to engage employees in monitoring external and internal threats.
Let HR handle the internal problems. External ones are a bigger deal.
Hire and train right and your internal threats will disappear. Dealing with customers and competitors is more difficult – you don’t handpick them.
This is much bigger than HR.
Practically every corporate decision can help strengthen or weaken the brand – from safety standards to pricing decisions to supplier selection. A broad strategy to reduce brand threats should encompass the entire enterprise.

My take

Jonathan R. Copulsky, Strategy & Operations, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Many leaders react to outside threats to their brand, while ignoring internal risks that could be even more damaging.

When I talk with executives about brand sabotage, many are concerned about brand risks that emanate from outside sources – dissatisfied customers, cantankerous critics and unruly competitors. Attacks from outside sources are often purposeful and menacing.

However, individuals within the company who may not intend to do harm, may inflict as much – or more – damage to your brand. Consider the manager who forwards a confidential email to the wrong person, or the CEO’s snide remark that’s secretly recorded, or employees who upload at-work pranks to YouTube. These internal saboteurs may not set out to destroy brand equity, but the impact can be just as devastating as the acts of a willful saboteur.

Because it’s impossible to know who will attack or what weapons they will use, some risk intelligent companies are adapting the strategies and tactics of counterinsurgencies to reduce brand threats, both internal and external:

  1. Plan for the worst. Evaluate brand risk as you would a financial or strategic risk. While it’s impossible to anticipate every outcome, plan for the consequences of brand threats that could be most damaging, even if the chances of them happening seem relatively unlikely. When your planning is done, rehearse, just like you would with any emergency response scenario.
  2. Be proactive. Enroll everyone in your organization in brand risk management, including employees, senior executives and value-chain partners. Engage employees in monitoring and reporting internal and external threats. Build your organization’s ability to anticipate, track, report, manage and respond to internal and external brand threats.
  3. Learn and adapt. Pay attention to how other organizations respond to brand threats to learn what works and what doesn’t work. Sabotage tactics are constantly evolving; your brand defense must change as well. When an attack takes place, take the time to analyze your response, assess what worked (and what didn’t) and embed these learnings in your go forward plan.

Brand defense doesn’t get a lot of attention until something bad happens and then everyone wants to know why you didn’t do something to prevent it. By then it’s too late.

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