I always believed that brand suicide was essentially the result of some major foot-in-mouth event, or a product fail of epic proportions. Moreover, it was not so much the failure itself, but rather the result of not being able to manage and recover from that failure. There’s a right way and a wrong way to dig your brand out of a hole.

But this big picture stuff isn’t the only way brands die. When it comes down to it brands die at a micro level. Brand suicide occurs whenever an individual has ‘had it’ with a company, be that the result of shoddy treatment, or disappointment with products and services.

Normally when this happens to me I tell people about it, in the strongest possible terms. That used to be a relatively limited group of people, but nowadays I can (and do) communicate my annoyance / misery on Twitter, which gives any disgruntled customer a lot more reach. And as such the world is a scarier place for brands than ever before.

The vast social media echo chamber means that brands are now at real danger from lots of small events, rather than one big one. We are living in an age where brands die by 1,000 cuts, rather than one almighty chop. The rise in popularity of social / user-generated platforms like Facebook, Digg, Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia means that brands are more exposed than ever.

So how can brands go about killing themselves slowly?

Spamfail. Everybody hates spam, which comes in many forms including emails, blog comments, social media spam, search engines spam, and old school spam such as junk mail. Too much of a bad thing is always a bad thing. Here are 10 ways to avoid spam

Faking it. Speaking of spam, some of the most ill-advised spam campaigns have involved company executives. Take Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who – over a seven year period – posted anonymous comments on Yahoo’s stock market forums to criticise a competitor (while calling himself ‘cute’ in the process). Funny and embarrassing in equal measure. And also deceptive: the comments prompted an SEC investigation. He was cleared, he apologised (kind of), but the damage was done.

Executive foot in mouth. John Mackey also ‘did a Gerald Ratner’ a few months ago by saying that his organic superstore “sells junk”. Ratner, a jewellery tycoon, almost caused the collapse of his company in the late-1980s after describing his products as “total crap”. Journalists simply love stories like this.

Inappropriate hashtag piracy on Twitter. Hopping onto a trending hashtag can be a good idea, but you need to be creative and contextual. Otherwise things can get weird, as Habitat found out when an ‘intern’ responsible for the firm’s Twitter output decided to promote the firm by jumping onto threads relating to the protests in Iran.

Hey, loyal customer: screw you. Nothing smarts more than insurance premiums being raised for no good reason, especially when you’ve stayed with the insurer for years. Shouldn’t my premium fall? It’s the same with mobile operators, where customer churn is a massive issue, and for many other firms too. It’s madness, frankly, especially as it typically costs far less to retain a customer than to acquire a new one. So why do businesses penalise loyal customers while offering new ones amazing deals? I’d wager that it’s linked to the way bonuses are paid, as much as anything. The sooner we move on from that the better. Businesses need to evolve into retention-focused operations, where staff are rewarded on the basis of customer loyalty, satisfaction and profitability, rather than sales.

Punish tiny indiscretions. True story: back in 2002 I was placed on an ‘arrears plan’ by Vodafone after missing just one lousy payment, the first time I had done so in three or four years. With an unblemished payment history up until that point I couldn’t understand it, but I was assured that there was no room for movement. Annoyingly the ‘arrears plan’ meant that a black mark was added to my credit file. As such I left Vodafone almost immediately and shall never return.

Over-promise, under-deliver. After leaving Vodafone I was enticed towards 3, the UK mobile operator with the first 3G network. Unfortunately something went badly wrong and the handset I was sent refused to send a text message for the best part of six months. So much for the joys of 3G. I spent around 30 hours on the phone trying to resolve the issue, and now have a mortal fear of Norah Jones (the hold music).

Customer service fail. Where to start with this one? I’ll do almost anything, including ignoring a problem that costs me money every month, just to avoid calling the customer service centre. This visualisation, called ‘Why I’d rather be punched in the testicles than call customer service’, perfectly illustrates why call centres suck so badly. 

Kick the shit out of a Good Samaritan. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ryanair vs blogger. Constructive criticism is part and parcel of the world we live in. You can take it personally, as Ryanair did (backed up, amazingly, by its PR department who put out a statement along the lines of: “lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are too busy driving down the cost of air travel”) or you can take it on the chin and fix up those problem areas. 

Do the heavy-handed PR / legal thing. The world has irreversibly changed, and old school wool-pulling – and threats – don’t seem to work so well anymore. I am of course referring to the Trafigura scandal and subsequent attempt to hush things up. A superinjunction was imposed on The Guardian but the crowd came to the rescue, with bloggers and Twitter users standing up for free speech. This PR / legal spin has been an utter disaster for all involved, and it had the opposite effect of quietening the press (it trended on Twitter for a couple of days). The takeway here is that transparency is the only way of protecting a brand under fire.

Crap advertising. “Mum, I want to do a poo.” Discuss…

Horrific advertising. I’m all for edgy, but the decision to drape models over Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe for a recent EasyJet brochure was jaw-droppingly stupid

Intrusive advertising. Here’s a fact: if you commission pop-ups, you totally suck and everybody hates you.

[Image by Pascal PirateChickan]

Launch a rubbish website. It’s obviously not going to be a good thing for your brand, is it? Instead of naming and shaming I’m going to simply point you at Vincent Flanders. Tell us how it is, Vince…

Launch a rubbish, inaccessible website. Some people will hate your website because it has a shocking user experience. Meanwhile others will hate it because they can’t use it. Why would you want to alienate customers or prospects? Mac owners, sight-impaired people and the 80+ generation are all internet users, and there are lots of them. Flash websites are some of the worst offenders, as major retailers have found to their embarrassment

Bastardise your brand identity. Completely. Changing the look and feel of your brand is always a little bit dangerous, even when it is necessary. Do too much, too soon, and you might have a problem. Consider what happened with British Airways when it redesigned the tail fins on all of its aircraft, replacing the Union Jack with ‘world art’, at a cost of £60m. Cue a massive public outcry. Despite this it took the company four years to ditch the ‘ethnic liveries’. Moral: be careful when messing with your brand’s appearance.

Ignore a major / killer problem with your products. What use are bike locks that can be opened with a biro? Or what about cars that kill people due to accelerator pedals sticking? Obviously no consumer in their right mind would risk buying these products. Product recalls can be horrendously expensive btu if you know there’s a problem then it’s better to deal with the situation sooner rather than later (the longer you leave it, the worse the problem gets, and the more the brand becomes tarnished).

Introduce ridiculous charges. Banks are some of the worst offenders but once again there’s no need to look any further than Ryanair, which is surely the king of silly charges (although they often result in lots of noise in the press, which I imagine may be part of the grand plan). Ryanair charges £5 simply to book a ticket via credit card. It charges if you take a bag with you, and also if you don’t. It even considered charging passengers to use the toilet (seriously).

Rubbish delivery. Online retailers are judged not only by their websites and prices, but also by service, and that means – by and large – the ability to deliver on-time and without charging astronomical fees. Consumer expectations are sharper than ever in this area. Retailers cannot expect someone to wait at home all day simply to receive some oversized package, purchased via the internet. The retailer may blame the courier, but the consumer will apportion a fair amount of blame to the retailer.

Sack the wrong people. You can lose a lot of respect by firing the wrong people. For example Microsoft recently let Don Dodge go, as part of a bigger wave of layoffs. In the eyes of the startup community this was a serious blunder, which was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Google picked him up within 90 minutes of him clearing his desk.

Burying your head in the sand. If there’s one surefire way of committing brand suicide then it’s to ignore problems and bad noise. Reputation monitoring is essential these days. I’m not saying you should reply to every single tweet that mentions your brand, but certainly you can reply to those people who say something negative. If you choose not to then that’s your call, but if you say you “can’t possibly reply to everybody” then you’re very probably wrong. Remember that a problem is really an opportunity to surpass customer expectations, and to drive loyalty through quality service

What did I miss? I’m sure there are dozens more ways of harming your brand… leave your ideas and pointers below…