Famous brand names, like rep­u­ta­tions, require a lot of work. Earn­ing a place at the top of the heap a cen­tury ago took years of good per­for­mance. While the time frame from con­cept to prod­uct devel­op­ment and mar­ket suc­cess is con­sid­er­ably shorter today, it still takes effort to become a lead­ing brand. That view from the top is fab­u­lous, but don’t get too com­fort­able. Bad things can hap­pen to good brands.

Watch­ing the recent Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val favorite Mitt, I was reminded of the chal­lenge pre­sented by cre­at­ing and sup­port­ing an estab­lished brand. With a quiver of suc­cess­ful strate­gies in a range of impor­tant dis­ci­plines, Mitt Rom­ney put his brand to a rig­or­ous test as a can­di­date for Pres­i­dent of the United States. Tak­ing the polit­i­cal party out of the equa­tion, most would agree that the Rom­ney brand was built of solid stuff. Despite Romney’s expe­ri­ence and accom­plish­ments, his brand took hits that ulti­mately knocked him off the podium.

Whether or not you agree with his pol­i­tics is one thing, but know­ing that his brand suf­fered from the label of “flip-flopper” because he changed his mind on some­thing is a harsh les­son in brand­ing. Even though, as in Romney’s case, there may be new infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ing good rea­son for the action, it’s the per­cep­tion of it out there that mat­ters. With a lit­tle antic­i­pa­tion, turn­ing flip-flopper to pro­gres­sive lis­tener might have made a difference.

Many labels, printed with spec­u­la­tion, per­cep­tion, and hearsay, are sticky, even if they are not based in fact. Like gum on a shoe, such labels can be per­sis­tent, trou­ble­some, and even messy. Once someone’s laid that snare, and you’ve stepped in it, it’s your prob­lem to address. How do you get that bad brand­ing gum off of your cor­po­rate shoe?

If you’re on top of things, you can actu­ally avoid the mess. That brings to mind some­one I know who had earned con­sid­er­a­tion for a sig­nif­i­cant pro­mo­tion. How­ever, a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that candidate’s per­sonal brand would have had huge con­se­quences had we not engaged unso­licited sup­port of prospec­tive man­agers. This individual’s pro­duc­tiv­ity, intel­li­gence, and knowl­edge were uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized by his friends and cur­rent man­ager. Yet, in a crit­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion, his pas­sive style went unap­pre­ci­ated by a high-level man­ager, putting his suit­abil­ity for the new role into ques­tion. That man­ager had spit out his gum directly in line with the employee’s next footstep.

I knew, and the employee’s imme­di­ate boss knew as well, that the indi­vid­ual was highly qual­i­fied. We put our heads together to help the employee avoid step­ping in the manager’s gum. With a few prac­tice ses­sions and a strate­gic pre­sen­ta­tion directed at the inter­nal group he was hop­ing to sup­port, the employee’s skills went viral. The head of the group sent an unso­licited email to the gum-depositing man­ager, express­ing how thrilled he was to have the employee rep­re­sent the brand, ulti­mately chang­ing the gum guy’s per­cep­tion of the can­di­date from inad­e­quate to desirable.

We engaged the employee’s cus­tomer, the inter­nal busi­ness group, to come to his defense with­out even ask­ing. The man­ager val­ued the group’s opin­ion, turn­ing the tide in the employee’s favor and win­ning him the well-deserved pro­mo­tion. We helped him side­step the mess.

But what if your foot­fall actu­ally con­nects with that mess? Per­haps some casual com­ment, unfor­tu­nate image, or irrel­e­vant per­sonal note becomes the favorite chew­ing gum fla­vor of the week on social media. Or on a more seri­ous scale, a new ad cam­paign, prod­uct, or ser­vice gets doused with unflat­ter­ing super­glue and picks up some unex­pected bag­gage. Think BP Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon, Tar­get secu­rity breach, or Ralph Lauren’s 2008 US Olympic uni­forms made in China. Those are telling, piv­otal moments.

While it is always impor­tant to watch where your company’s next step is about to land, some brand­ing prob­lems are unavoid­able. Some­times, they come out of nowhere. Other times they’re a direct result of cor­po­rate behav­ior. What­ever the source, you’ve got to pick your bat­tles. Do you address a sticky issue directly or take a more thought­ful approach?

Most of the time, my advice is to come clean. Take off the shoe, remove the gum, put it back on. Or, if you can make that goo act pos­i­tively to rein­force a weak spot, good job. Regard­less, ignor­ing a brand­ing issue is almost never the right answer. You’ll prob­a­bly get a lit­tle goo on your brand’s shoe from time to time. Make sure you know how to clean it up:

  1. Be trans­par­ent. Point the fin­ger at your­self like Domino’s Pizza did in admit­ting its short­com­ings and ask­ing the pub­lic to give its improved prod­uct another try.
  2. Engage cus­tomer sup­port. Unso­licited defense of your prod­uct is ideal, but don’t be afraid to reach out if it is appro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary, as we did in the exam­ple above.
  3. Be reas­sur­ing. Empha­size mech­a­nisms in place to pre­vent the prob­lem from reoc­cur­ring. Bet­ter yet, antic­i­pate the prob­lem with reassurance.