Ford dealers are having to find large spaces to park hundreds of Kuga 1.6 models involved in the company’s safety recall. Picture: MARK SMYTH
Ford dealers are having to find large spaces to park hundreds of Kuga 1.6 models involved in the company’s safety recall. Picture: MARK SMYTH

If ever there was a lesson for marketers and brand custodians in terms of how not to handle a reputational crisis it is the recent, and many would argue belated, Ford Kuga recall. Instead of acting proactively from the outset the company has continued to use the lame excuse that lack of data was behind the car manufacturer’s failure to recall cars earlier. Really, just how many Ford Kugas did the company need to start self-combusting before taking action?

In a recent interview by Sunday Times columnist Chris Barron with Jeff Nemeth, CEO of Ford SA, the latter’s responses bordered on the ill-informed. The only concession Nemeth appeared to make in this interview was his final comment that in hindsight, Ford should have acted quicker.

Reputation management expert Janine Hills, founder and CEO of Vuma Reputation Management, agrees that Ford should have responded much faster. “It’s over a year since the first car caught alight – and somebody died in that incident. Ford allowed this issue to escalate out of control and it has now gone far beyond mere brand reputational damage. By dragging its heels Ford SA has played with people’s safety and even their lives.”

Janine Hills. Picture: SUPPLIED
Janine Hills. Picture: SUPPLIED

Ford Kuga owners are, not surprisingly, not at all happy that their cars may now be, at worst, worthless, and at best have lost about half their value, and Ford SA has done little to address their concerns. “Consumers have the right to demand their money back,” says Hills. “A recall is no longer enough.”

Companies make mistakes, but it’s how they handle them that determines how well they weather the subsequent reputational crisis. And there is little doubt that Ford’s reputation is now in severe crisis. If Ford SA had a crisis management strategy in place it certainly does not appear to have been utilised: the company has shown little empathy for affected Kuga owners and it appears that for too long it prioritised company profits ahead of customer safety. When a brand loses its human empathy it’s time to go back to the drawing board and relook its values, because consumers are forgiving only  to a point.

Hills believes Ford SA could still bounce back from this crisis – but only if it handles this situation sincerely and “with heart”. “Instead of distancing itself from its customers and stakeholders it needs to partner with them to find a solution that works for everybody,” she advises. “Ford needs to put drastic measures in place that includes guaranteeing customer safety or giving them their money back. The company needs to buy back liquidity and trust in its brand – and it needs to do whatever it takes to achieve this, because this crisis is not only hurting Kuga owners but also dealers, salespeople and those working in local Ford assembly plants.”

The big take-out: Ford SA’s management of the burning Kugas is a lesson in how not to handle a reputational crisis.

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