Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Is your brand fireproof?

On June 2, 2011, a full three weeks after it was crash tested in a controlled environment by the NHTSA, a Chevy Volt caught fire because the battery was improperly handled after the crash. You'd have thought from the resulting media firestorm that every Volt ever sold up to that time had caught fire and that GM management had perpetrated a coverup larger and more nefarious than Area 51 and Watergate combined.

Yesterday, the NHTSA announced it will investigate the Tesla S after a third car caught fire immediately after a crash on the open road in just the past two months. And yet, criticism of Tesla is slow to come.

What's the difference?

The brand.

People have been burned (pun intended) so often by GM's engineering missteps over the years that they almost expect any new technology that comes from GM to be flawed. Thus a story about one car that was involved in an artificial crash simulation and caught fire only because government safety investigators didn't follow GM's published protocols for draining and discharging the battery after a crash, suddenly became "fires." It got so bad that to calm owners' fears GM had to offer up loaner cars while an investigation took place.

Tesla and Elon Musk, on the other hand, don't have GM's baggage, so the fires are minor issues. Teething pains for a fledgling company, if you will. The media and public don't assume negligence or incompetence, and even give Musk credit for requesting an investigation into the fire (though the NHTSA disputes that claim).

If you have a strong brand, a good reputation, it can protect you from the occasional stumble. But if you stumble too often for too long then that becomes your brand and what people expect from you.

That's why Tesla's brand is acting as a fire extinguisher, while GM's brand only fuels the flames.