Probably the most common branding problem that people in the edible oils and fats business feel troubled about is the question of how to respond to attacks. This is especially so when the attacks seem unfair, whether levelled by governments or NGOs.

And when this happens, what is the best response? More specifically, what are the best strategies and detailed approaches for protecting your brand and building a positive reputation?

These are not new problems. And their solution doesn’t necessarily need to be new either. Yet, there is a general trend to be more excited about new ways – rather than old ways – of fixing problems. For much of the time, this bias presents no particular problems – but too much of it can cause us to miss out on better solutions which might have been around for a very long time.

Many of the problems facing the branding of the edible oils and fats industry are old problems. The issues have to do with:

  • Trust
  • Building a reputation
  • Explaining why unfair criticism is unfair
  • Handling attacks by opponents
  • Knowing your opponents’ strategies, knowledge and motivations
  • Separating the truth from the non- truth (whether there are issues to do with accidental miscommunication or deliberate lies)
  • Understanding the role of biases and vested interests

All of these are almost identical to the issues faced by leaders in ancient times. So, to a surprising degree, looking backwards can be highly useful in order to do a better job of moving forward.

In Rome, for example, there was the frequent issue of handling unfair attacks, be it criticism or outright abuse. Tacitus (AD 56 to 117) was one of Rome’s more famous Senators, as well as a notable historian. He came up with this advice: “Abuse, if you slight it, will gradually die away; but if you show yourself irritated, you will be thought to have deserved it.”

Likely audience reaction
Does Tacitus’ advice apply today? I would say so because, when people go against it (as many organisations still do), they find that the results are often the opposite of what they had intended. Sometimes responding aggressively, with a lot of noise can give both the attack and the attacker a visibility and a credibility that they otherwise would not have enjoyed.

Yet many managers think that when someone attacks, a response – whether it is abusive or factual – is expected. This seems to be a straightforward matter. After all, when you respond, you are either right or you are wrong. Facts either support you or they don’t.

But things are rarely that simple. As human beings, we often don’t take things at face value. If somebody says ‘x’ to rebut an attack, the response from listeners is rarely ‘Ok, well, x it is’. They are more likely to think:

  • Ah well, he would say ‘x’ wouldn’t he?
  • What’s his motivation to defend himself?
  • What is he hoping we will think?
  • What’s he trying to hide?
  • Who’s paying him to say it is ‘x’?
  • Oh, he seems angry now. That is definitely a sign of guilt.
Strangely enough, people view the degree of intensity of your response as a key indicator of how legitimate the attack was in the first place. It is much less work for them than analysing all the pros and cons of an issue and checking through piles of data. In other words, with these kinds of battles, logic won’t save you, and neither will fairness.

Audiences are often confused (which is understandable given the vast volume of information coming at them these days), as well as suspicious (which is also understandable given the number of organisational leaders who have lied over the years). Consequently, it is difficult to predict which way they will lean. This is a process that many find frustrating.


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