Blue Bell: 4 Lessons from a Recall Crisis

Katherine Nash Goehring    Blubell Thumb

Recently, an unexpected and still unfolding crisis has engulfed one of Texas’ iconic brands – Blue Bell Creameries. A listeria outbreak linked to its ice cream forced the 108-year-old company into a nationwide recall of all of its products.  Unfortunately, the way Blue Bell handled the recall has caused confusion and fear, prolonged its time in the headlines and damaged its reputation.

In case you haven’t been following the story, here are the broad outlines. Over the course of several weeks in March and April, the company announced three product recalls, temporarily shut down the plant where the products in question were being made, issued a statement from the CEO apologizing for a “wrong” assumption that the problem was isolated to one machine in one room, and then finally recalled its entire inventory from shelves across its 23-state market.

As a result of this uneven, constantly shifting and complicated response, Blue Bell now faces a long road to rebuild its customers' trust. While it’s too early for a full postmortem analysis, four crisis lessons from the Blue Bell recall are already clear:

Take decisive action. As we have written before, when in the midst of a crisis, it is imperative to take your garbage out all at once – do not let it dribble out, piece by piece. In hindsight, which is of course always 20-20, Blue Bell should have erred on the side of caution and pulled all of its products off the shelves more quickly.  Costs are always a legitimate consideration, but as Tylenol showed in 1982, a swift and total recall can set the foundation for a strong recovery in sales.

Leadership must speak. As media and tech leader Jason Hirschhorn says, "When your company is under fire, no one wants to hear from your PR people." In the first month of the crisis, an outside consultant served as Blue Bell’s primary spokesperson. Blue Bell finally got it right when they released direct-to-camera videos from their CEO and employees.

Invest in your social media channels. Until recently, Blue Bell did not have an active Twitter account, which can be a critical tool for communicating to reporters and customers in a crisis. In fact, the company’s first-ever tweet was on April 21, the day of the full recall.  Today the company only has 754 Twitter followers. And even though Blue Bell has 120,000 likes on its Facebook page, it rarely posted before the crisis (only 7 times in 2014).

A great brand can and will survive a crisis. This is where Blue Bell got it right (pre-crisis).  And it is the reason the company will not only survive but probably thrive in the years ahead.  People – especially Texans (me included) – have a strong attachment to their Blue Bell Ice Cream. Thus, even in the midst of a terrible crisis, the Blue Bell community rallied around the company.  This widely circulated meme illustrates the deep bond that “Blue Bell Country” has with the brand"

Of course, not every company in a crisis will have as strong of a brand as Blue Bell (or as good of ice cream!) Take decisive action, have your leaders speak, and have your social channels ready – these are just a few lessons that any organization can draw from in a crisis.