Brands Need to Be Prepared for the Inevitable Crisis, Bozoma Saint John Says

Endeavor's CMO encourages Brandweek attendees to be ready, not fearful

Tiffany Warren (l.) and Bozoma Saint John in conversation at Brandweek in Palm Springs, Calif. Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

When it comes to a brand crisis, it’s not a matter of if but when, according to Endeavor CMO Bozoma Saint John, who emphasized her point to Brandweek attendees by humming the theme song from Jaws.

To prepare for the inevitable disaster, and manage it well, Saint John believes brands need to look internally at teams and company culture, make sure the right people are not only present in the room but empowered to speak up, build trust with consumers by being transparent and truly consider the power they have in society.

In a conversation with Tiffany Warren, svp and chief diversity officer for Omnicom Group, founder and president of Adcolor, at Brandweek in Palm Springs, Calif., Saint John questioned why marketers “wait until something detrimental happens” to think about what to do in a crisis. 

Don’t think it’s not going to happen to you,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that we are all vulnerable. Every brand is vulnerable.”

Instead of being frightened of the inevitable, Saint John asked attendees to rethink their strategies, to become more like athletes who train and prepare for every possibility. “It helps on the other side, too, because when that thing inevitably happens, having had not just plans in place but action in place actually gives you some allowances with audiences,” Saint John said.

Nike, Papa John’s and Starbucks are three brands marketers should examine when it comes to crisis management.

Nike’s Kaepernick campaign

You look at the recent Nike work—that didn’t just happen,” Warren said, referring to Nike’s recent campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. “That was probably two years in the making. They prepared for all of the inevitabilities and the backlash and the things that are going to come from the left and right about what they’re doing.”

The Nike work is representative of a cultural shift when it comes to the way brands function in society. “Our culture has changed, the way that we talk to our audiences and how involved they are in our businesses,” Saint John said. “We, in turn, have a responsibility to reflect the time and take a position.”

She added: “I don’t take the Nike work simply or at face value. I know the kind of battles it must’ve taken and probably still. Even with great numbers that they’re seeing now, those first moments when the stock took a dip—oh lord, can you imagine?” 

The numbers quickly changed in Nike’s favor—sales went up roughly 31 percent. The work represents a brand taking a risk that will ultimately be beneficial to its long-term health, according to Warren and Saint John.

Papa John’s and representation in the room

Endeavor’s agency division, Endeavor Global Marketing, recently added Papa John’s—the chain that dealt with its own crisis recently over racist remarks made by its founder—as a client.

When considering how Endeavor could work with the chain to navigate the crisis and move forward, Saint John made sure that Victoria Russell, chief of diversity and inclusion at Papa John’s, was present. “To me, you can’t even begin this conversation without having someone like her in the room,” Saint John said.

This is not just a marketing and advertising issue; this is a cultural issue,” she added. “There is no way to have a real productive conversation about how to move forward, there’s no way for us to create messages for the outside world when the inside is hurting.” 

Starbucks’ mea culpa

Marketers should look at the way Starbucks handled its recent crisis as good example of how to handle one, according to Saint John. “[They had] someone who does not embody the values of the company face to face with their customers every day,” Saint John said, “in a way that was negative, embarrassing for the company.”  

“Their reaction was really positive,” Saint John said. “To shut down all of their stores, even for one day, cost about $50 million. If we think about what that means—there was a lot of criticism that it was just one day … [but] when you translate that into money, if we were to invest $50 million in anything,” it would have a big impact.

Saint John pushed for marketers to look in the mirror and remember that “the brands that we represent and that we work for … don’t live without us.”

“People make up the brands,” she said. “Sometimes we forget that. We can have the power narratives and change.”

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.