A well-known healthy drink brand, Ribena blackcurrant, was originally introduced in Britain in 1938 (Ribena 2017), manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the world largest pharmaceutical companies, and distributed in 22 countries including New Zealand and Australia (Enough 2007). The Ribena products suffered an impending brand crisis in 2004 causing sale decrease and reputational damage. Two New Zealand highschool students claimed that the Ribena blackcurrant drink did not contain higher level of vitamin C four times more than oranges as advertised, but instead, it had almost no detectable vitamin C (NZherald 2007). The GSK was found guilty for 15 cases and fined up to £1.1 million (AU$ 18 million) plus corrections of their advertisement (Vasagar 2007). The case clearly shows the GSK’s failure in crisis management, leading to the brand devastation (Jaques 2008).
During the crisis management, there were two strengths that GSK could uphold its credibility and reputation. Ribena has a strong brand supported by thousands of customers (Burke 2007), it was likely that most of the public did not trust the students’ findings. The two teenagers did the experiment because they wanted to prove their hypothesis that the famous brand drink is much healthier than cheaper brands (Vasagar 2007). The other strength is that the company was able to apply an apologia strategy to handle the disastrous brand matter (Jaques 2008). By acknowledging the mistake and apologising profusely, the company reduced the customers’ anger and disappointment from the misleading content. This seems effective, but it appeared overdue resulting in irreparable brand damage.
The GSK seemingly mismanaged the remedy strategy in achieving the communication’s objectives dealing with the scandal. It lacks a proper plan to solve the adverse occurrence causing major reputational damage which was protracting and expensive. The theoretical framework from its previous experience, Ribena Toothkind criticism, and the corporate scandal handling experience could be used to prepare appropriate responses. Examples of crisis management can be learned from the abnormal level of benzene in the bottle of Perrier products (Barton 1991), and Volkswagen’s cheating information about its car low emission (Hotten 2015). Smith (2013) recommends each company develops effective strategies to be proactive rather than reactive in responding any unpredictable crises.
The GSK’s communication crisis included the dismissal of the potential early warning (Jaques 2008; Regester & Larkin 2008). The GSK’s crisis response did not recognise the early problem raised by the two teenagers (Fair Go 2004; Jaques 2008). Instead of giving them satisfactory answer and eliminating the public’s distrust of the brand, the company ignored the problem and paid little attention to the girls’ claim. The implication of the company’s inappropriate response triggered the public anger and inflicted considerable harm stumbling over the iconic brand.
Rather than acknowledging the misleading advertisement, the GSK defended its products aggressively with inconsistent messages. According to Jaques (2008), the GSK used unsuccessful three methods – protecting the parent brand, accepting the brand damage in New Zealand and Australia only, and finding different excuses to rectify the problem. When the Fair Go TV station broadcast the Ribena case, the company continued to refuse the students’ accusation (Fair Go, 2004). Their refusal to admit that they misled the public resulted in the case to be investigated by the Commerce Commission.
The GSK should have developed a well-executed communication strategy before responding to the problem. Mahoney 2017 claims that each organisation should have a strategic communication for immediate concerns, emerging problem, and long-term issue. This plan enables the organisation to tackle the problem effectively. Identifying and anticipating early problems by using comprehensive systems is also significant during the crisis incubation (Jaques 2008). This approach prepares the organisation with any upcoming incidents which can minimise the financial and reputational threat (Regester & Larkin 2008). Using public relations (PR) campaign to restore the reputation is considered to be one of the effective strategies. The GSK should have used a PR campaign including publicity events, marketing video showing the process of producing Ribena drink with emphasis on vitamin C content in the drink, and social media to rebuild customers’ confidence. The PepsiCo company used an effective PR campaign in 1993 aiming to fight against the wrong accusation of finding a syringe in the can of Diet Pepsi (Business Insider 2017).
A broader level of managing the crisis should be taken into consideration for dealing with future problems. The failure of the crisis management of Ribena case was evidenced through its legal charges by the New Zealand court and a decline of Ribena’s sales. With lessons learned, the GSK might be able to respond swiftly and decisively to manage any future crises.
Barton, L 1991, A Case Study in Crisis Management: The Perrier Recall, Industrial Management & Data Systems, vol.91, n. 7, pp.6-8.
Burke, K 2007, ‘Ribena to Withdraw Vitamin C Claim’, SMH online, 22 March 2004, viewed 17 March 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/ribena-to-withdraw-vitamin-c-claims/2007/03/21/1174153159423.html
Business Insider 2017, 9 PR Fiascos That Were Handled Brilliantly By Management, viewed on 23 March 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/pr-disasters-crisis-management-2011-5?IR=T#johnson-and-johnsons-cyanide-laced-tylenol-capsules-1982-1
Enough, O 2007, ‘New Zealand schoolgirls find there’s no C in Ribena’, Reuters, 26 March 2007, viewed 19 March 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-newzealand-ribena-idUSN2632416820070326
Fair Go 2004, ‘A matter of juice’, Fair Go online, 28 October 2004, viewed 20 March 2017, http://tvnz.co.nz/content/455658/2483318.xhtml
Hotten, R 2015, ‘Volkswagen: The scandal explained’, BBC online, 10 December 2015, viewed 17 March 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772
Mahoney, J. (2017). Strategic communication: Campaign planning, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.
NZherald 2007, ‘Ribena-maker fined $217,500 for misleading vitamin C ads’, NZherald Online, 27 March 2007, viewed 15 March 2017, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10431119
Regester, M, & Larkin, J 2008, Risk Issues and Crisis Management in Public Relations A Casebook of Best Practice, 4th edn, Kogan Page, London.
Ribena 2017, Official Website, viewed 20 March 2017, https://www.ribena.co.uk/flavours/blackcurrant/
Smith, R, D 2013, Strategic Planning for Public Relations, Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, Routledge, NY.
Vasagar, J 2007, ‘Schoolgirls rumble Ribena vitamin claims’, The Guardian, 27 March 2007, viewed 15 March 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/mar/27/schoolsworldwide.foodanddrink