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.