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Beer, bibles and boycotts: The Coopers debacle

Recent news headlines were dominated by a curious incident involving Australia’s largest family brewer, Coopers, the Bible Society and an awkward seven minute video featuring two Liberal party politicians.

Coopers had partnered with the Bible Society to produce a run of 10,000 commemorative cans celebrating the society’s 200th anniversary. Following this, the Bible Society produced a video debate between openly gay Liberal MP Tim Wilson and conservative Liberal MP Andrew Hastie entitled ‘Keeping it light’, in which the two politicians debated marriage equality, whilst enjoying bottles of Coopers light beer.

Coopers’ connection with the ad and the Bible Society, which critics saw as trivialising the important issue of marriage equality, was attacked on social media by loyal, pro-marriage equality customers.

The incident has become a perfect example of bad brand management, poor communication and ineffective crisis response.

So what can we learn from the Coopers ‘Keeping it light’ catastrophe?

Know your brand

Coopers’ problems began with misaligning their brand with an incongruous partner. Coopers’ primary target market are males and females aged 18-35 who may be university students or young professionals and are socially aware*. Given this age bracket and profile is more likely to be pro-marriage equality and less religious than other markets, you’d have to question whether the partnership with the Bible Society ever truly aligned with the Coopers brand.

The first thing we can learn from this incident is that organisations must ensure that their brand message is consistent, particularly when partnering with others. Much of the outrage generated by this incident was likely driven by loyal Coopers’ customers who felt cheated by a brand they trusted and thought they knew.

Plan for a crisis

It has to be said that Coopers’ crisis response was found wanting in this case. While no doubt the company was taken by surprise – clearly they didn’t create this type of backlash on purpose – their slow and inadequate response points to a lack of crisis planning.

In our world of citizen journalism and social media, crisis management is more critical than ever before. There is no time to waste. As this incident as shown, it’s very hard to get off the back foot and get your message heard above the cacophony of the crisis if you’re not well prepared.

Stop, think, communicate

In the absence of a crisis strategy, Coopers made another major communications error – underestimating the strength of public sentiment. And that was thinking that they could effectively gloss over the issue with a simple media statement.

The statement endorsed the ‘Keeping it light’ video and Coopers’ partnership with the Bible Society, ignoring the conflict which others were highlighting, between the identity of the Bible Society and Coopers’ own brand identity.

The first statement appeared knee-jerk, lacked clarity (particularly in terms of the company’s position on marriage equality) and stoked the fires of outrage that the initial video had sparked. Then they went for strike two, with another statement which, while being slightly less vague, still did not address the real issues their customers were raising.

Finally, came a fairly uncomfortable video, in which they attempted a complete mea culpa, apologising for all their sins, ending their brand partnership with the Bible Society and committing to marriage equality.

Too little, too late.

While this final piece of communication may afford Coopers some respite, their piecemeal communication throughout this debacle may have done possibly permanent damage to their brand. How long will it take for them to repair this and reconnect with their target market? Or maybe Australians just like beer and will get over it quickly? Time and the Coopers’ bottom line will tell.

The lesson learned here is. Good crisis communication is pre-planned and anticipated with Nostradamus-like insight. It’s proactive, not reactive.

Coopers will have learned a difficult lesson the very hard way.